I recently, and not for the first time, lived through a significant natural disaster. Hurricane Matthew raked the eastern coastline, from Florida to Virginia, inflicting severe damage on golf destinations such as Sea Island, Hilton Head and Myrtle Beach. I live on that coast and thanks to multiple alerts, mandatory evacuation, a hasty return and after-the-fact assessment I had a front-row seat that I hope to never have again.
But it did get me thinking about how anyone responsible for a golf course or other outdoor facility should prepare and respond to such a disaster. This checklist is just a start: You should add to it with items specific to your situation
Before: Think “What if...”
You and your club should have a disaster-preparedness plan in place, particularly if you are in a geographic zone prone to hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, flooding or locusts.
Planning ahead is key, as is—at minimum—an annual appraisal from your course or club’s insurance agent. Your insurance provider needs to know the extent and scope of your equipment and chemical inventory, the stability of your maintenance facility (against wind, flooding and power loss), the viability of your irrigation system, the age and location of your pumping station (and its proximity to a water source), and that you have a contingency plan in place.
Part of that plan should be having trusted contractors on retainer so they become your first responders. This includes, at least, a course builder, tree company, heavy equipment operator and irrigation specialist.
As superintendents, we are already obsessed with weather forecasts. If there’s even the hint of an “event,” check and recheck the forecasts as well as the winds and tides, if relevant.
If an event is coming, make sure the storm drain system is clear and open. If time permits, needle tine the greens to allow water to move through the soil during and after rain.
Batten down the hatches: Make sure your facility is secure and the equipment protected, and don’t discount vandalism and looting.
Do you have the necessary clearing equipment staged so you can get to it when it’s time to start the clean-up process?
Are your qualified operators at the ready?
Have a priority list for clean-up in place, not only for the golf course but also for your entire community, if applicable.
During: Don’t Be A Hero
First and foremost, stay safe. If you’re ordered to evacuate, do so. Don’t be a hero and try to ride it out.
Remember that your employees and key staff also have homes and families, which come with their own issues and problems. Be sensitive to their situations and needs, but also be sure they know what their responsibilities are and will be going forward.
If you or someone from your crew must spend time on site, is there a safe place to stay or a nearby hotel with rooms available? Will you be able to get food and water, with or without power?
After: AAA—Access, Assessment, Action
Access – After the danger, determine how you are going to gain access. Is labor available to assist in this process?
Are roads blocked, downed trees, and flooded streets? As noted above, is your big equipment staged to help you gain access?
Contact your trusted contractors and find out when they’ll be able to show up. The most important tasks likely will be course cleanup, tree and/or water remediation, and an outside agronomic assessment of course conditions from university extension or independent turf consultants.
Other key issues will be:
- Storm drain system
- Road access (tree limbs, power lines, water)
- Fallen debris, tree limbs, leaning and dangerous trees
- Bridges, cart paths, tunnels
- Irrigation system and water quality –sodium
- Loss of applied agronomic products –herbicide, fungicide, insecticide
Assessment – Begin the cleanup, following the steps laid out in the disaster preparedness plan but considering changes based on conditions.
Perhaps a bigger headache than the mess will be your members. Because after assessing their own homes and immediate surroundings, they’re going to think about “their” golf course. You and the entire club staff must be firm with the members, explaining the dangers and offering a timeline but remaining realistic.
It may be necessary to explain to members why your course isn’t open yet but a nearby one is, beginning with a different level of damage. You’re the expert and it’s your responsibility to bring the course back safely and properly. Don’t let members push you into altering your schedule and plans. Make sure the general manager, golf pro and all the other principals who members interact with are on the same page.
Putting Greens – Once it’s safe to assess the golf course, start with the greens, where half of the game is played and the quality of the playing surface is most noticeable and pertinent.
Irrigation – Carefully check the irrigation system and the pumping stations to ensure proper operation and water distribution.
Electronics – Electronic control stations are highly susceptible to water infiltration and/or damage from fallen trees. In a hurricane, flooding and high tides can contaminate turf grass rooting systems with high amounts of sodium and bicarbonates that can have long- term plant-health impacts if not properly flushed out of the soils.
Sand Bunkers – Heavy rain, tidal flooding, and strong winds can severely affect bunkers, especially those with steep slopes. They must be cleaned, repaired, and have sand and subsurface fabric liners replaced. Perhaps more than any other areas of the course, these will require time and money.
Sodium Impacts – For coastal courses, flooding from storms and increased tide fluctuation increases sodium in the soil and turf plant. Excessive amounts of sodium negatively impact the playing quality and health of fine turfgrass both in the short and long term.
Move the debris blocking entrance onto the course and club grounds so you can progress in a logical fashion.
Trees will probably be your biggest concern, not only those that have fallen but those that will eventually fall. You’ll need a tree service with a trained arborist who can give an accurate assessment of these “leaners” (also known as “widow makers”) and which will last the longest. Be sure to take photos, especially if a favorite tree is compromised or presents a future liability.
Even though members will promise to stay away from the fallen and leaning trees, do not let them on the course until it’s truly safe. The safety of golfers and your crew must remain the top priority.
Dealing with debris takes time and a careful coordinated cleanup, all the more reason to keep golfers off the course until the coast is absolutely clear. Trust me; you don’t want your club featured on the local news.
If you are not using your practice range for debris staging, try your best to get the range open quickly. It may keep those who just must hit a ball at bay a bit longer.
No matter how quickly you work, it won’t be fast enough for some golfers. Be kind, have patience and understand that everyone thinks he’s the only one affected. The same when dealing with your crew, who will be exhausted not only physically, but emotionally. The work is long, hard and not particularly rewarding, so you’ll have to make an extra effort to maintain morale. And their personal lives may have been impacted, as well.
And as if you didn’t have enough to deal with, remember that Mother Nature will continue to do her thing so everyday course maintenance will still be necessary.
They don’t call it a “disaster” for nothing.