by Lou Mancinelli

Members of the Friends of Wissahickon (FOW), with help from employees of the city’s Parks and Recreation Department, District Four, are spearheading restoration efforts in Wissahickon Valley Park to repair damage caused by surging floodwaters caused by Hurricane Irene.

Some immediate problems caused by the storm, like certain washed-out trails along Forbidden Drive, have already been repaired by Parks and Recreation workers, according to Maura McCarthy, executive director of FOW.

A city work crew restored the parking lot of the Valley Green Inn, which had been destroyed by flooding of the Wissahickon during Hurricane Irene

Members of FOW will meet with Parks and Recreation officials in early September to discuss the remaining restoration efforts, according to McCarthy.

High winds and flooding caused by Hurricane Irene on Aug. 27 and 28 swept along the East Coast and New England. New York City and Philadelphia public transit systems were shut down. Mayor Nutter declared a state of emergency.

In southeastern Vermont, people in 19 towns were left with no way out of their communities because roads had been destroyed by the storm, National Public Radio reported.

In the Wissahickon, damage included felled trees, washed out and eroded trails, loss of electricity, basement flooding and eroded lower parking lots at the Valley Green Inn. Forbidden Drive by Wises Mill Road and Valley Green require total rebuilding, with deep soil deposits in some places, and scouring in others, according to FOW.

McCarthy urged people to avoid trails at the present time while they are wet, so as to minimize the potential of further damage. The terrain in these areas is uneven and may not be suitable for regular trail activities such as running, biking, horseback riding or even walking for some users until repairs are complete.

She also stressed that the water in the park was not safe at present, due to sediment, high amounts of fecal matter, protein, herbicides and pesticides that washed into it during the storm. This is true after any rainstorm, she said, not just a hurricane.

The floodwaters washed out Forbidden Drive in several locations, according to a message posted on the FOW homepage. Those locations are near Rex Avenue, between Wise’s Mill Road and Valley Green Inn, and between Gorgas Lane and Mt. Airy Avenue.

Some problems were fixed Saturday evening, during the height of the storm, according to Mark Focht, first deputy commissioner of Parks and Recreation. He said crews were at work in the park by 8 p.m. Saturday and worked a 24-hour shift.

The crew worked on trails along Forbidden Drive that were completely washed out by the storm. By Monday morning, crews had already moved stone, re-graded and rebuilt the trails, according to Focht.

We will look at what’s left [to be done] and decide how it can best be handled,” McCarthy said about continuing restoration efforts. “We will decide what’s a good volunteer project, what’s a good project for the staff, and what’s a good project for the both of them to work on together.”

McCarthy said in the upcoming days FOW should have a better sense of what needs to be done and how.

We will prioritize,” she said. “We might wait until winter to fix a small trail washout, versus a big-trail washout that we would fix now, like where Cathedral Run meets Forbidden Drive.”

In addition, the damage to Forbidden Drive, locations along the 50 miles of upper natural surface dirt trails through the park were also seriously damaged, according to the website. Areas where there are known problems include the Orange Trail trailhead at Bell’s Mill Road and the pre-existing damaged section of the Orange Trail south of the Walnut Lane Bridge.

Please avoid areas which are obviously storm affected, and report damages to FOW as you discover them,” the website said, “so that they can be added to the list of areas requiring repair.

While a most of the restoration efforts will be handled by staff from FOW and Parks and Recreation, as well as with the help of volunteers, some work will require skilled laborers.

An outside contractor with experience in and knowledge of how to build natural surface dirt trails will be hired to rebuild the Bell’s Mill trailhead. Major restoration work done to that trail in 2008, was washed out by the storm, McCarthy said.

The cost of such a project will depend on how much restoration FOW, Parks and Rec. and volunteer-laborers are unable to fix on their own. Those costs will include the cost of machinery and skilled labor, she said. McCarthy was unable to give an estimate. Funding will come from public contributions.

The last time the Wissahickon flooded at this level was in 2004, according to McCarthy. That was when two “100-year-floods” occurred in a span of two weeks. A “100-year-flood” refers to a threshold of rainfall and flooding that on average is realized but once a century. She said the Wissahickon floods dozens of times each year. Those floods are often managed by flood plains within the park, designed specifically to absorb flood-level rainstorms.

McCarthy said community members could help by volunteering for FOW Workdays, focused on cleaning the park. The next workday is Thursday, Sept. 8, from 5:30 p.m. to 7 p.m. Work will focus on cleaning Devil’s Pool.

All city parks, including the Wissahickon, are protected by a state charter, McCarthy said. That protection was strengthened last winter when City Council amended the Land And Park Ordinance to prohibit “the transfer or conversion of outdoor public park and recreation land in the City to other uses or to third parties unless certain procedures and requirements are met.”

While the existence of the Wissahickon, at present, is not threatened by development or legislation, “it’s always the public’s responsibility to say [the Wissahickon] is important to them,” McCarthy said.

All city land is vulnerable to being used in a different way [than its present use],” she said. “We need to say as citizens this is important to us.

We got lucky here in the Wissahickon. In some places, the flooding from Irene was severe, but we got lucky.”

For more information about, to volunteer for or become a member of the Friends of Wissahickon, visit www.FOW.org or call 215-247-0147.