NORRISTOWN, Pa. (WLVT) — When tropical storm Isaias moved through the region on Aug. 4th, it brought severe flash flooding that toppled trees and fences at the Elmwood Park Zoo.
"A creek runs along the edge of our property, and the water rose up and flooded the park. It was the worst flooding that we’ve seen in years," Eric Donovan, park operations director, told PBS39. "We had to evacuate 31 animals. The alligator exhibit flooded out completely. It’s still under construction now."
Thanks to staff members and volunteers, the zoo was able to clean up and reopen last week.
"No loss of life, no injuries. We actually started to evacuate our animals around 7 a.m. The flooding started around 9:30 a.m. We had a plan for evacuating them in place, a little bit of it was on the fly, but I call it controlled chaos," said Donovan.
This is the second time this summer that the zoo was hit hard by a bad storm. In June, 30 trees fell onto buildings and exhibits on the property during a severe windstorm known as a derecho.
"With all of the damage from these severe storms, we’re looking at over $1 million worth of storm damage," said Donovan.
He says the zoo has a long road ahead to financial recovery, including about $2.5 million in revenue loss due to Covid-19. That's one reason why the zoo is asking for donations for its newly created emergency fund.
One donor, Norristown native and entrepreneur Lenny Bazemore, has committed to matching donations of up to $10,000. The Valley Forge Tourism and Convention Board recently shared Bazemore’s story on its website.
"You have someone like Lenny who grew up in the area and has really fond memories of the zoo," Rachel Riley, spokeswoman for the board, told PBS39. "He lives on the other side of the country and yet he still wants to help! I think the memories built at the zoo stay with people and they last a lifetime. As you can see from this big donor, people grow up and their memories of the zoo stay with them."
Donovan says the zoo has been a family destination since its inception in the 1920s.
"This is our 96th year in operation," he said. "We opened in 1924 as a small park with a group of white tailed deer. We now have giraffes, zebras, bald eagles, jaguar, bison and elk."
He says community support gets the zoo through tough times.
"With Covid-19 hitting us this year, it stopped people from coming through the gates, but our expenses didn’t change. We have all of these animals that we need to care for. We couldn’t do all of this work without the help of our wonderful volunteers or without donations," he said.
Despite the current challenges, he says the zoo is not giving up on its expansion ideas, including plans to build penguin and tiger exhibits.
"They’re not afraid to think outside of the box," said Riley. "Just a year or so ago they became the first zoo in the world to become a certified autism center, so guests with autism have spaces at the zoo designed especially for their needs. They want to bring on new exhibits and animals. That’s why the community loves them, they're innovative and they never give up."
Help The Zoo: Visit the website to learn how to donate or volunteer.