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National Park Service director gets close look at park damage

“Devastating.”

That was how National Park Service Director David Vela described the road damage he saw during a visit to the Vicksburg National Military Park Tuesday.

Vela came to the park to get a first-hand view of its problems. The slide damage in the Vicksburg National Cemetery was one of the areas he visited.

“It’s one thing when you’re on a conference call and you get briefing statements, but when you put your eyes on something like this, it becomes real, and especially when it involves human remains of the fallen,” he said as he looked over the cemetery damage.

“This is just one location,” he said. “There are many other areas in the park. It’s frankly eye-opening when you look at the magnitude of the damage.”

The landslide in the cemetery was the result of torrential rains that hit Warren County in January and February. Erosion issues have also forced the park to close Grant Avenue and Grant and Sherman Circles to the public for safety reasons.

Besides touring the park, Vela met with Mayor George Flaggs Jr., the Friends of the Vicksburg National Military Park and Campaign board and Park Superintendent Bill Justice.

“We are all on the same page as to the level of concern — how do we get back to some type of regular normal,” he said, “Because there’s no question the visitor experience is going to be impacted.”

He said the positive impact for him is the collaboration of organizations involved with phasing in the Park Service’s plan to reopen the park in cooperation with Gov. Tate Reeves’ office and its concerns about the status of COVID-19 cases.

“This is the same model we’re using around the country. Our interest is in making our parks more accessible throughout the country,” he said. “This is the same scenario with Vicksburg. Working in lockstep with the governors.”

Vela said the interest he and the National Park Service have is to do everything it can to support Justice by assessing his priorities, finding funding sources and determining how to leverage public and private support.

“This is going to be a marathon when you look at what the new normal will be in this COVID environment,” he said. “We want to do everything we can to make this park accessible.”

Vela said funding efforts to help repair some of the problems at the park will depend on Justice’s priorities.

He looked at the cemetery damage. “It could be something as simple as a study that he may need. What will it take to stabilize this hillside (pointing to the slide area) when there’s graves right above it?

“Bill and his team will say, ‘OK, here’s what it’s going to take to stabilize that; (and) there are like five different outcomes.’ We will then from an agency perspective and from our project funding determine what’s the best funding to check off those five boxes at a regional level and a national level.”

The roads inside the park affected by erosion, he said, are part of a conversation the Park Service and Justice have been having with the Federal Highway Administration as to what will be accessible.

Justice, he said, already has some analysis on the condition of the existing roads and their prospective failure rates.

That’s going to help determine what traffic will be on the accessible roads and what the visitor experience will be like, Vela said.

“There are a number of considerations that have to be made prior to people coming; what do they need to know. The park’s website, the media pages are going to define what you’re going to be able to experience once you come to this place,” he said.

About John Surratt

John Surratt is a graduate of Louisiana State University with a degree in general studies. He has worked as an editor, reporter and photographer for newspapers in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. He has been a member of The Vicksburg Post staff since 2011 and covers city government. He and his wife attend St. Paul Catholic Church and he is a member of the Port City Kiwanis Club.

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