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Mount Rainier Park Starts Long Road to Recovery

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Mount Rainier Park Starts Long Road to Recovery

Environment

Mount Rainier Park Starts Long Road to Recovery

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Washington's Mount Rainier National Park is still closed more than a week after massive flooding and mudslides. Park officials say the damage is unprecedented. Austin Jenkins, of the Northwest News Network, reports that repairs could take at least a couple of years and millions of dollars.

(Soundbite of rain, footfalls)

Mr. AUSTIN JENKINS (Reporter, Northwest News Network): It's a short walk from the main entrance of Mount Rainier International Park to the banks of the Nisqually River. Here, the aftermath of the flooding is on stark display. Where once there was a campground, now there is a gaping debris-choked river channel. Park spokeswoman Lee Taylor describes the flood that literally swept away the Sunshine Point campground.

Ms. LEE TAYLOR (Spokeswoman, Mount Rainier National Park): It was so loud, if you were with someone and tried to speak to them, you would have to shout. You could actually hear the rocks in the river being carried along and crashing into each other. The air smells like wet earth and Christmas trees. There were so many trees flowing in the water that had broken into pieces that you could actually smell it.

Mr. JENKINS: The record flooding was triggered by a pineapple express, a warm tropical storm with origins in Hawaii. It parked itself over the Pacific Northwest last week. In just 36 hours, Mount Rainier received a stunning 18 inches of rain. Pictures taped to the walls inside park headquarters tell the rest of the story - paved roads ripped away by floodwaters, trails blown out by mudslides, bridges gone, park buildings now uncomfortably close to river's edge. Again, spokeswoman Lee Taylor.

Ms. TAYLOR: It's a huge mountain, and I think one of the things that has left the staff awestruck is that every part of the park has been impacted by the storms last week.

Mr. JENKINS: Recent rains also caused damage at Washington's Olympic National Park, and Glacier Park in Montana. At Mt. Rainier, so far what they've found by surveying from the air and on foot, is staggering. Paul Kennard is the park's river specialist. He believes the damage was made even worse by melting glaciers on the south face of the 14,000-foot volcano.

Mr. PAUL KENNARD (River Specialist, Mount Rainier National Park): Basically, our glaciers are retreating. And as they do that, they're actually causing glacial outburst floods, which are turning into debris flows. And these happened at the same time, and they're triggered by the rain events. So the amount of landslide material, in addition to the regular flood material, is giving us unprecedented flows in the river.

Mr. JENKINS: Park officials are still working to come up with a damage estimate, but it's clearly in the millions of dollars. And for the next couple of years at least, visitors may find sections of some roads and trails impassable. For instance, the world famous Wonderland Trail, which circles Mount Rainier, was washed out in several places. Carl Fabiani has been with the park service for more than 40 years.

Mr. CARL FABIANI (Trail Crew Supervisor, Mount Rainier National Park): It's a little bit depressing to see this much damage at one time, I mean, in one sense. In the other sense, it's a great challenge.

Mr. JENKINS: Fabiani is in charge of maintaining the trails at Mount Rainier. He says most of the work will have to wait until the snow melts next spring.

Mr. FABIANI: It'll require the use of helicopters - substantially large helicopters, heavy-lift helicopters - use of explosives in some areas. In some places, the trails have been washed out to the extent that there's nothing left but a bedrock hillside, and the only option is to blast the trail out of bedrock.

Mr. JENKINS: In the short term, the goal is to get the road to Paradise Lodge reopened so visitors can take advantage of winter activities. That may take another two weeks. It's believed this may go down as the longest closure in the park's 107-year history.

For NPR News, I'm Austin Jenkins in Seattle.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.

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