Hikers looking to enjoy some of Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park’s most popular trails could get their feet wet on the journey, park officials warn.
Minor flooding persists throughout much of Paynes Prairie as a result of Hurricane Irma and heavy rains from September and October, park official Joe Weisberg said. La Chua Trail, one of the park’s most popular trails, and Cones Dike Trail still have water as deep as 1 foot. Last week’s rain added a couple more inches to the flooding, Weisberg said.
“You can pretty much hike most trails, you might just get a little soaked,” he said.
After Hurricane Irma, La Chua Trail remained closed until mid-October. After the hurricane, park officials estimated the storm damage to county parks to be at least $65,000, according to Alligator archives.
This sort of monthslong flooding is beneficial to the prairie ecosystem, said Donald Forgione, the park’s director. The floodwater kills off excess trees and shrubbery, which then become food and shelter for insects at the bottom of the food chain.
The last time this natural flooding occurred was in 2004, after Hurricanes Charley, Frances and Jeanne, Forgione said. Since September, the water from Hurricane Irma has gone down about 10 inches, but some parts of the prairie outside of the trails still have 6-feet-deep water.
“To us, the prairie isn’t flooded. It’s just full of water,” Forgione said. “Just like a hurricane and fire, it’s part of nature’s design and is perfectly healthy.”
Forgione said despite the flooding in the prairie, which hasn’t been seen in a decade, he hasn’t seen any dip in visitors.
“It hasn’t dampened the spirit of our visitors. If anything, our visitors enjoy coming out and seeing natural phenomenon,” he said.
Weisberg said it’s unclear when the flooding will completely subside. Winter’s freezing temperatures and cloudy skies have prolonged the flooding.
“Until it warms up, the water’s going to be about the same,” he said. “It really depends on the sun coming out and heating (the park) up a little bit.”