The superintendent of Cheaha State Park said that during last week’s winter storm, thick ice shut off power on top of Alabama’s highest point around 4:30 a.m. Thursday. The only thing cutting through the silence was the sound of falling trees.
“I’ll tell you, I could hear a tree from 20 miles away,” Power said Monday, driving her truck over limbs and debris as park employees and crews from Alabama Power and Tallapoosa River Electric Company worked to clear blocked roads and down lines.
As most of central Alabama prepared for the worst, and got just the mild effects of winter weather last week, Mount Cheaha saw winds and ice that knocked down more than 1,000 trees, damaged cabins and made roads impassable.
“It looks like a tornado blew through here,” Power said, surveying the destruction that poked holes in cabin roofs and ruined hiking trails.
Alyson Tucker, a spokeswoman with Alabama Power, said four crews worked nonstop between 8 a.m. Thursday and 8 a.m. Friday to restore power.
"We couldn't send a crew Wednesday because of the conditions," Tucker said. "Trees were starting to break and our trucks had trouble getting up there because of the ice."
The park closed Wednesday, and as of Monday, signs were still posted telling people to stay away. But that hardly stopped some visitors from trying to enter the park, Power said, and a guard had to work through the weekend to turn people away.
“What we want people to understand is this is for their safety,” Power said. “That’s our No. 1 priority.”
Power said her staff is trying hard to get the park open by Friday for the scheduled Mount Cheaha 50K Ultra Marathon race on Saturday, but it’ll likely be next week before the park fully reopens. Her staff still hadn’t assessed some damage, including to the handicap-accessible boardwalk trail, which will need repairs, she said. Since Thursday, her staff of about 20 has been working nearly nonstop, assessing damage, putting tarps on roofs and cleaning trails. Alabama Power had already placed new poles and fresh lines, restoring electricity to the area by Friday afternoon last week.
Because of its elevation — 2,407 feet above sea level — Cheaha is susceptible to heavy winds. The wind coupled with the ice — in some cases, 6 inches worth of it on the trees — caused the most damage to the park since Hurricane Opal struck in 1995, Power said.
Power said the silver lining is no one was hurt, except of course, the park.
“That’s a casualty that’s heartfelt,” Power said. “I’ve worked here 32 years, so it hurts to see it like this.”
It also hurts the park’s bottom line. Power said that when the park is closed it can’t generate revenue. So while she’s asking people to please stay away while conditions are unsafe, the park is ready to welcome guests as soon as it can.
“Just as soon as we’re open, come back,” Power said. “We didn’t get to be the oldest continually opened state park in Alabama by accident. It’s the people that make this place what it is.”
Residents wishing to volunteer time to help clean the park should contact Cheaha’s staff at 1-800-610-5801.
Staff writer Brian Anderson: 256-235-3546. On Twitter @BAnderson_Star.