POTOMAC -- Fifteen damage assessment teams yesterday began slogging through mud and ice along the Potomac River to tally flood damage to the C&O; Canal National Historical Park.
The devastating floods last weekend washed out the park's towpath and walkways in many spots and drained much of the canal. The damage has indefinitely closed the popular, 184-mile-long getaway, which is visited by 5 million people a year.
The extent of the damage won't be known until next week. But it already is being described as worse than that from a 1985 inundation, which took the National Park Service several years and $10 million to repair.
The Potomac's waters rose in a roaring torrent last Friday, fed by rainfall and melting snows from the Jan. 7 blizzard. The deluge swamped 70 percent of the old canal, and put towpaths and locks under as much as 10 feet of rushing water. It also flooded many of the park's 600 historic structures.
"It was awesome," said Chief Ranger Keith Whisenant. "You couldn't believe that much water could be coming down one river."
Washouts cut the canal towpath -- now a hike-and-bike trail stretching from Georgetown to Cumberland -- into inaccessible segments. The cuts also drained portions of the canal that had been filled with water again as part of the park's restoration.
At Great Falls, floodwaters damaged or carried off 75 percent of the low boardwalk sections of a pedestrian walkway leading from the mainland to Olmsted Island. The $750,000 walkway was completed in 1994, replacing a structure washed away by Tropical Storm Agnes in 1972.
The walkway's elevated bridge sections were designed to withstand such a flood. "They survived," said Mr. Whisenant.
Sens. Paul S. Sarbanes and Barbara A. Mikulski, Maryland Democrats, have launched efforts to find U.S. Interior Department money to begin repairs.
Charlie Stek, project director for Senator Sarbanes, said securing money is "clearly going to be very difficult this year. We're also pursuing the idea of trying to get the National Guard or FEMA [Federal Emergency Management Agency] to kick in some funds."
Senator Mikulski said it was "very important to do everything possible to restore the canal." But she noted the more critical human losses elsewhere.
"I believe our first obligation is to help those who have lost their homes and their livelihoods in this devastating flood," she said.
Begun in 1828, the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal was built to carry freight and settlers between the Tidewater and the Midwest. It has been raked by Potomac flooding throughout its history. It was a relatively minor flood in 1924, coming on top of financial trouble and competition from railroads and highways that finally put the canal's operators out of business.
"It [flooding] shouldn't come as a surprise," Mr. Whisenant said. "I think we were all sort of lulled into a false sense of comfort."
Paul M. Rosa is executive director of the Potomac Conservancy, a nonprofit land trust devoted to protecting the Potomac landscape. He said the damage to the C&O; park this time is severe.
"I've looked at the damage inside the [Capital] beltway," he said yesterday. "We had hoped to field an army of volunteers to pick up debris and litter, and it was immediately obvious that the damage is extensive. It's going to require heavy equipment and contractors."
At Fletcher's Boathouse, about five miles north of Georgetown, only a foot of water remained yesterday at the bottom of the canal, while the adjacent Potomac ran foamy and bloated.
Joe Fletcher, whose family has run the boathouse for four generations, scrubbed mud off boats and cleared trees and other debris.
"I'm hoping to get things up and running soon," he said, "but we're going to need a lot of help from Washington."
Among damage noted so far:
* About 100 feet of towpath below the Old Angler's Inn, near Great Falls, was washed out.
* Across from Harpers Ferry, W.Va., the river undermined and collapsed a stone canal lock and a large section of towpath.
* Lock gates and footbridges that carried visitors from parking areas to the towpath at several locations were washed away or damaged. Many historic buildings were flooded and undermined.
* Piles of mud, uprooted trees, logs and other debris can be found throughout the park.
Still uncertain yesterday was the fate of the 164-year-old Monocacy Aqueduct -- a stone bridge at the Frederick-Montgomery county line that carries the Monocacy River over the canal. In deteriorating condition before the flood, its repair cost has been estimated at $25 million.
Near Potomac, Park Ranger Lynne Barrett spent a large part of last weekend piling sandbags around the Great Falls Tavern, now a visitors center. The old pub was saved. She spent much of this week turning away park visitors.
"Our busiest time of the year is a few months away," said Ms. Barrett. "And we'll likely be closed until summer. I don't know what people are going to do."
There's some hope. The river spared five miles of towpath north from Georgetown, which rangers say may reopen this weekend.
Elsewhere, the park is expected to remain closed as a safety measure for as long as eight months.
The park, especially its southern reaches close to Washington, has become a popular getaway spot for the District and nearby Virginia and Maryland. The park's popularity among joggers, hikers and cyclists -- including some members of Congress and the Clinton Administration -- also may be its salvation. Mr. Whisenant said the park service has already had "quite an outpouring of volunteers who want to help us put it back and some people are offering donations toward the restoration."
People wishing to assist with time, services or money should call C&O; Canal park headquarters at (301) 739-4200, or Potomac Conservancy at (703) 642-9880.