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Swamp regenerates after storm

Hurricane Hugo blew down one of the biggest trees in America, located on an oak ridge in the Congaree swamp.

For years after the storm, the shumard oak lay there, rotting.

The last traces of it are surely gone by now, said John Cely, who worked for the state Department of Natural Resources for 26 years and knows the swamp as well as anyone.

Since then, other big trees have stretched toward the clouds.

Now, there are six national champion species in the 26,000-acre swamp, said Vic Shelbourne, a Clemson professor who's the one South Carolinian responsible for keeping track of record-setting trees.

How did Hurricane Hugo change Congaree National Park?

Rebecca Sharitz, a professor of plant biology at the University of Georgia, is working to answer that very question. She has been studying damage and the recovery of trees in the swamp since the day after the storm.

Sixty percent of the largest trees sustained damage, she reports.

Hardwoods were most susceptible to the storm; few of the signature baldcypress were affected, probably because of their root structure and small leaves.

But oak and sweetgum saplings survived to fill gaps in the most damaged parts of the forest, Sharitz said.

Some of them have grown faster than normal - perhaps because rich topsoil from farmland upstream settled in the swamp.

Since the beginning of time, hurricanes have been important in maintaining the diversity of trees in the Congaree forest.

They thin the heavy canopy, letting in sunlight that allows different species to grow.

Because of Hugo, sweetgum trees have remained an important part of the forest. They need light to grow.

Cely calls them "hurricane trees."

"You can put your hand on every sweetgum tree down there, and that tree probably got its start from a hurricane," he said.

Hugo changed the national park in Hopkins forever, but it's hard to see now.

Broken and fallen trees have decayed, and new trees have grown in their stead - a testament to the regenerative powers of nature.

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