Return to Shangri La begins, a year after Harvey’s devastating deluge
Shangri La Botanical Gardens & Nature Center, closed to the public for a little more than a year after being swamped by Tropical Storm Harvey, reopens today.
It was the manmade parts of the sprawling, 72-year-old nature center that took the longest to repair. Mother Nature took care of the rest.
“Believe it or not the gardens have been looking great for the last 9 months,” said Rick Lewandowski, director of the nature center in Orange.
“We had between 2 and 3 feet of water throughout the entire garden for four to five days after tropical storm Harvey left,” Lewandowski said. “The hardest part for us was the infrastructure. Our buildings around Shangri La were the most hard-hit and it’s been about a year of renovations to try to get them back to normal. However, the gardens recovered pretty quickly.”
Lewandowski said they were lucky with Harvey compared to hurricanes Ike and Rita. The gardens lost around 15,000 trees from the winds in Rita, and the saltwater that inundated the gardens in Ike killed many of their plants. It took the gardens two years to recover from Ike.
“To our good fortune Harvey, although it dropped a lot of water on us, was a freshwater storm and the water was mostly draining away into the Gulf. For the plants it wasn’t a bad storm at all and they recovered pretty nicely,” he said.
Randal Terry, professor and interim chair of the biology department at Lamar University, said he has taken his students to Shangri La for years.
“It remains probably the best single place in the region to see native plants, ornamentals, tropical epiphytes and orchids and other botanical curiosities,” Terry said.
Lewandowski said the park is in a great phase just before autumn comes.
“It’s toward the end of our summer period so there’s lots of lush tropical foliage, lots of flowers in the garden and the weather is starting to improve a little bit,” he said.
Beginning Oct. 9, the center will host its annual Scarecrow Festival with contributions from locals, businesses, churches and other organizations. The last day of the festival, Nov. 3, is called Autumn Fair and visitors are invited to celebrate the harvest.
“Once folks come and Scarecrow Festival opens, then we’ll really feel like we’ve come back home again,” Lewandowski said.
The Stark Foundation, which operates the nature center, decided just before last year’s storm that the nature center and all of its programs would be free to the public.
“We live in a community that is underserved,” Lewandowski said. “Many folks in our community can’t afford to pay for the admission, so the foundation said that they would make every effort to make our venues accessible to everyone.”
Admission will remain free as will such events as the “Up Close with Nature” series on the last Saturday of every month.
“We look at wildlife,” Lewandowski said, “and people can touch and feel and enjoy being part of that.”