There’s a stop sign for campers pulling into Hunting Island State Park. But visitors have likely slowed down long before. The island has been closed for nearly two years following Hurricanes Matthew and Irma. To the right of the entrance, campers once enjoyed breath taking beachside views. Now storm damage takes their breath away.
“I wasn’t even sure there would be a spot,” said Eileen Benjamin as she wandered on to the beach. “When you drive in you see all the down trees and you think if it still looks like this how are we going to be camping?” It’s the first time she’s been back since 2015.
Park manager J.W. Weatherford says two consecutive years of storms wiped out nearly half of the campground’s 200 sites, mostly along the beach. Hurricane Matthew’s strong winds in 2016 took out trees and flattened the dunes. Then, just as the park tried to reopen a year later, Hurricane Irma’s storm surge flooded electrical boxes and swallowed the beach. “It took maybe 15 to 20 feet,” said Weatherford. “We haven’t had an exact survey."
Weatherford says they had to remove 2,600 trees, mostly pines, from the park’s public areas because they were so storm ravaged they could collapse. Many used to line the beach, shielding campers from the sun. Trees along the other side of the island that do not threaten people have been allowed to fall into the forest as debris. The North beach is also home to the Hunting Island lighthouse which stands unscathed and is open to visitors to climb.
“Forever this island has changed,” said Weatherford. “None of this is new. We have been managing this changing barrier island since the state got involved with the property in the 30s.” He adds barrier islands are meant to serve as a buffer for our coast and this one has one of the worst erosion rates. He estimates the total damage from two storms at $1.2 million.
The good news, Weatherford says, is Hunting Island is the state’s most popular park bringing in more than $3 million a year. They’re still trying to figure where and what to rebuild, but want to do so wisely. For now, they won’t replace the lost campsites. The beach is still without dunes and defenseless. They do have a least one idea they plan to share this summer.
“This summer we’re going to open up a brand new thing that none of the state parks have,” said Weatherford. It’s going to be a day site people can reserve.” He says people will be able to pull in, park and enjoy a day at the beach complete with a picnic bench and fire pit. What’s more, he says they are free to come and go as they please.
The beach is still beautiful. Eileen Benjamin has gone back for her bike and plans to take a ride. She’ll find a larger, more intricate boneyard beach, one of the benefits of beach erosion. People have tied hammocks between the branches of the dead trees. Kids have made a jungle playground. Plover birds scurry along the shore and a formation of pelicans glides overhead.
“It is easy to see the magic in hunting island state park, even after two hurricanes,” said Weatherford.
My family and I used to camp in those beachside spots. After a day of touring the island with Weatherford who clearly appreciates, “what is”. I had to go back and find old pictures to even remember, “what was.”