Roaring River State Park buffeted by May 26 windstorm

By Sheila Harris sheilaharrisads@gmail.com

While most residents in Cassville were caught by surprise by the overnight May 26 windstorm that swept through town, personnel at Roaring River State Park were forewarned, said Interim Superintendent Mike Busekrus.

The wee hours of Sunday, May 26, could be considered a trial by fire for Busekrus, who took up the reins of park management in March after the superintendent position was vacated by Melinda Kitchens.

In spite of the notorious — and thankfully occasional — flash floods that can turn Roaring River’s gentle flow into a raging torrent, avid fishermen and vacationing families, alike, are undeterred by such possibilities. On May 25, true to form on the traditionally busy Memorial Day weekend, campsites within the narrow confines of the valley were filled to capacity.

At 1 p.m. on Saturday, Busekrus said he and other park personnel sat in on a conference call with the National Weather Service and Barry County Emergency Management.

“[The agencies] were life-savers,” Busekrus said. “They told us a good eight hours before the storm that we should prepare for severe weather that night.”

Those eight hours, Busekrus said, made all the difference.

“My staff and I jumped into action,” he said. “By 3:30 p.m. on Saturday, we had notified every camper in the park that they should be prepared for rough weather ahead. If there was no one around to notify, we hung tags on doors to warn people to be weather-aware: to expect rain, hail and high winds. We left it up to them whether to stay or go, but we wanted them to be ready, and to have a plan.”

Many of the campers opted to pack up and leave in advance of the storm.

Busekrus said he went home to sleep for a while before returning to work at midnight.

“I got calls from both the National Weather Service and David Compton, with Barry County Emergency Management, a couple of hours after I came on duty,” Busekrus said. “They let me know that the storm was about 20-30 minutes away, headed in my direction.”

Busekrus said he was deeply grateful for that call.

“It made me feel like I wasn’t all alone down here,” he said.

Busekrus was in his truck when the hailstorm began, and stayed put until it had quit. After the hail stopped, things “got nautical,” Busekrus said.

The wind picked up, the power went out, and, in the dark, there was no way to assess the damage that was occurring.

Worse, Busekrus said, with the power out, there was no way to gauge the rise of the river.

“I knew I needed support really quickly,” he said.

He called in all of his staff, but the first on the scene, Busekrus said, were the Boy Scouts.

“I had a troop show up in the middle of the night to offer to help me,” he said. “I am so thankful.”

Park Employee Mark Landreth, who lives nearby was next to arrive.

“Because we didn’t know what the water was doing, I made the call to evacuate Campground 3, where we still had some campers,” Busekrus said. “So, the Boy Scouts and Mark and I went door to door, telling everyone they needed to leave.

“Another problem we ran into with no electricity, was that RVs with slides can’t pull their slide-out back in,” he said. “We had one RV drive slowly, with its slide still out, to higher ground.”

Meanwhile, the threat of rising water was still an unknown.

“I called Carl Bonnell [Ozark District Deputy Regional Director], who lives in the Branson area, and he started monitoring the gauge, remotely, from there,” Busekrus said.

Busekrus said all of his staff were on hand and prepared to begin triage as soon as the storm passed.

Daylight revealed a mess: a downed tree lay across Highway 112, north of the park, which had taken the park’s power line down with it, and huge, uprooted trees and broken tree limbs littered the ground in the narrow river valley leading to the hatchery, as well as in Campground 1 and across the park’s trails.

“Basically, we had tree damage throughout the park,” Busekrus said. “We had chainsaws running by 6:30 a.m., though, and as soon as they were able, crews with equipment came in from surrounding state parks, including Bennett Springs, Table Rock, Prairie State Park, Stockton State Park and Shepherd of The Hills.”

In addition to the Boy Scouts, Busekrus had help from area high school volunteers who are part of the park’s partnership with Arc of The Ozarks, a program made possible through the efforts of Exeter Schools Instructor Lisa Duncan.

“I am so thankful for everyone who showed up to help with clean-up,” Busekrus said.

He would like to give a special shout-out to the linemen from Barry Electric, who made Roaring River a priority.

“After the tree across Highway 112 was cleared, the Barry Electric crew began running new power lines for us as soon as it was light enough to see,” he said. “We had power back on before noon on Sunday.”

For future such weather events, Busekrus hopes to have storm sirens in place: the result of a grant written by Barry County Emergency Management.

“We’ll have a siren at Campground 1, a second one for Campgrounds 2 and 3, and one at the lodge,” Busekrus said.

According to Busekrus, the sirens will offer the “latest and greatest” in technology, with voice warnings, visual alerts (flashing lights) for those who are hearing impaired, and the capacity for plug-in microphones for special announcements.

“The sirens will be a game-changer here [in the park],” Busekrus said.

To Busekrus’ relief, the flash flood threat at Roaring River never materialized during the May 26 storm, but with the excitement that was generated otherwise, he got a small taste of what Mother Nature can dish out in the valley.

On Saturday, Seasonal Naturalist Erron Jones said as far as he knows, most of the clean-up work at the park is finished, except a section of the River Trail, which will be rerouted until some dirt work can be done.

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