Photo: Tomas Griger

A maze. Interconnected pathways leading to a clearance. Each October we see the pictures. Owners of large plots of land craft mazes within crops to offer families pleasant evening or weekend scampers.

Mother Nature also crafts mazes. Don’t believe it? Chris Neff does.

On the second weekend of October, he returned to Wexford Plantation, the Hilton Head, S.C., property he manages, and encountered a maze with no ending point. Hurricane Matthew arrived the night of Friday, Oct. 7 and continued into the morning of Oct. 8. Three weeks later, Neff and Wexford Plantation’s department leaders still debated details during afternoon briefings.

Did the eye of the hurricane touch Hilton Island, a 42-square mile island with more golf courses per capita than anywhere else in the country? Did winds reach 100 miles per hour? Did two tornadoes occur? Or three? Or maybe four? Did rainfall exceed 20 inches? They will be asking these questions for years at communities such as Wexford Plantation, which includes more than 400 homes and a private golf course.

Recovering from storm requires organization, patience an understanding of science and plenty of fortitude. But first, it requires clearing the maze. Roads come before homes. Homes come before greens. Greens come before fairways. His status as Wexford Plantation’s director of greens and grounds gave Neff first responder access to the property. He immediately realized this won’t be a normal fall. “There were no passable roads on the plantation,” he says.

Across the state line, 60 miles to the south, Nelson Caron followed a convoy of emergency vehicles along Interstate 16 and into Savannah, Ga. He then made the familiar 30-minute drive to Richmond Hill before arriving at The Ford Plantation to begin an unforgettable workday. The power was out and 12 ½ miles of roads were impassable. “It looked like Lincoln Logs everywhere,” says Caron, The Ford Plantation’s director of golf course and grounds maintenance. “I guess it was exactly what I expected. It was a disaster.”

Disasters bring mazes. They force manager such as Neff and Caron to prioritize and establish realistic post-disaster expectations. Neff and Caron estimated their properties lost 1,750 and 3,500 – and counting – trees, respectively. Fallen trees struck homes and covered greens. Storm surges submerged turf primed for the peak golf season in salty water. Weeds and diseases will abound, causing mazelike patterns on turf.

Yet, through the maze, incredible stories emerge. Of superintendents and crews showing up for work despite significant losses in their own lives. Of memberships generously helping employees. Of careful plans reaping long-term dividends. Of turf becoming stronger.

USGA Southeast Region agronomist Patrick O’Brien has lived in the Carolinas for 30 years. He visited Charleston, S.C., following Hurricane Hugo, a storm more powerful than Matthew. When the maze cleared, O’Brien says Charleston had stronger golf courses.

“The good news about a lot of the trees that are lost is that most golf courses have too many trees anyway,” he says. “A lot of times it helps golf courses have better golf turf. It improves the golf holes. I can tell you after Hugo those courses in Charleston were a lot better once they got all fixed up and everything even though they had hundreds and hundreds of less trees.”

Fortunately, Neff says, his employees started evacuating Hilton Head Wednesday, Oct. 5. Every member of his team safely returned to Wexford Plantation for work the following week. Cleared trees created fortresses throughout the property. Engaging a tree contractor and golf course construction company before Matthew arrived allowed Wexford Plantation officials to consider reopening the golf course sometime in November.

Pick an emotion, and there’s a good chance somebody on the Wexford Plantation staff experienced it in Matthew’s immediate aftermath. Emotions, though, dissipate.

“Everybody is over the shock factor,” Neff says. “I think morale is very, very good. What we have talked about as a staff and as a club … We will be better after this. We might have lost some trees, but everything here can be replaced and fixed.”

Before

The Ford Plantation’s leadership didn’t hesitate. After dodging the brunt of Hurricane Hermine, a tropical storm once it reached the Georgia coast in September, nobody wanted to take chances when observing Matthew’s projected path. Hurricane preparations started three days before Matthew’s expected arrival, Caron says.

Crew removed all course accessories. General manager Marc Ray endured Hurricane Katrina while working in Louisiana in 2005, and he helped key Ford Plantation personnel obtain first responder access, which allowed an immediate damage assessment and started the process of concocting a recovery plan.

It looked like Lincoln Logs everywhere. I guess it was exactly what I expected. It was a disaster.” —Nelson Caron, The Ford Plantation

Anticipating power outages, Caron and his team loaded pickup trucks with supplies such as chainsaws and ropes needed to carve their way back onto the 1,800-acre property, and the food and beverage staff secured an 18-wheeler to store refrigerated food and propane grills. Caron recommended The Ford Plantation make financial commitments to multiple logging and tree care companies prior to the storm’s arrival, thus securing their services if the storm’s ferocity met or exceeded predictions. “My general manager said, ‘Nelson, you are either going to be the goat or the hero,’” Caron says. “If the storm didn’t turn out to be that bad, I probably would have been the goat spending that much money.”

Clearing trees and debris from roads is the first challenge facing superintendents and crews following a major weather event. Arranging the services of tree contractors before the storm can help expedite the cleanup.

The calculated decision expedited the cleanup. Two logging and five tree care companies had arrived on the 1,800-acre grounds by Sunday, Oct. 9. A team of 70 contractors joined Caron’s 45-member crew, and parts of the golf course reopened Oct. 13. The entire golf course reopened Oct. 16, with an event the pro shop staff called: “The Hurricane Shotgun: Hopefully not an annual event.”

Having significant resources allowed The Ford Plantation, a private club with numerous members who own multiple homes, to reopen quickly, Caron says. He also says Savannah missed the portion of Matthew that battered Hilton Head. “We’re bad,” he says. “They’re real bad.”

Solid planning is aiding Wexford Plantation’s recovery.

The club examined its written hurricane preparation plan prior to Matthew’s arrival, and obtained first responder passes for a half-dozen staff members, including Neff. In addition to securing a qualified tree contractor and golf course builder for repair work, the club rented a Bobcat and large loader to clear access to the property. Crew removed course accessories and refueled equipment before employees evacuated. Employees without vehicles received assistance leaving the island, and the club created a text message list to ensure the whereabouts and condition of employees once the storm passed.

The depth of the plantation’s harbor was dropped, although the intensity of the ensuing storm surge negated move. Clemson University’s Dr. Dara Park says “unfortunately, there isn’t much one can do” to protect irrigation sources. “However, if a course has an alternate source of water that would less likely be impacted by storm surge (municipal or well), switching over before the storm may save resources for more immediate needs after the storm,” she adds.

High salinity levels are a problem associated with storm surges. To combat potential problems, Caron applied 800 pounds of gypsum per acre before Matthew’s arrival.

Rain produced by Hurricane Matthew submerged the 17th hole at The Ford Plantation in Richmond Hill, Ga. Pumping water from the back nine was a two-day process, according to director of golf course and grounds Nelson Caron.

Scalping is another post-storm issue that can be addressed before evacuating. If a storm is projected to make landfall while warm-season grasses are still growing, NC State’s Dr. Fred Yelverton recommends applying a PGR.

“Bermuda and Seashore Paspalum are two species that are very prone to scalping so you want to slow that growth down as much as you can,” he says. “Even if you don’t have flooding and you just have wet soils, you can track it up real bad. And timing is critical in this. If it’s still in August – and we do get hurricanes in August – Bermuda is still growing pretty hard. When you have a hurricane like we do right now (late October), which we can have, Bermuda is kind of slowing down big time. It’s not as critical as August or September. When you have a big rainfall event, even if it’s not a hurricane, it might be a tropical storm, it’s important to have a growth regulator on it to just slow the growth down.”

Under ideal circumstances, Yelverton says a PGR should be applied seven days in advance of a storm. But changing weather forecasts alter application windows. An application one or two days in advance is better than nothing, Yelverton adds.

During

Remaining near the course will not ease the post-storm burden. Evacuate until authorities declare returning is safe.

After

At Wexford Plantation, the shock of navigating a cluttered maze lasted three days as leadership assessed damage and prioritized post-storm objectives. “And then all we did that first week was clear roads,” Neff says. “The golf course was the last thing on our mind. Everything was directed to make sure the membership could get back to their homes. That was our biggest priority, then we just started clicking down the priorities.”

Safety drove decisions. Crews removed trees leaning near homes as soon as possible. As they waded onto the course, a 30-degree rule was implemented. “If it has a 30-degree angle, we are cutting it down,” Neff says.

Hurricane Matthew caused serious damage to Wexford Plantation’s bunkers.
© Chris Neff

Fallen trees caused significant damage on three greens. Bunker walls collapsed. Seven greens, in Neff’s words, “took it on the chin pretty good” because of a salty storm surge. Wexford Plantation’s Zoysiagrass fairways, tees and fairways handled the salt water dumped on the course better than its Bermudagrass greens. “How long were some of the greens under water?” Neff says. “It’s impossible to tell.” Neff is resetting the fall agronomic program and restarting it from scratch.

The length of time a water source may be affected by a storm surge varies based on proximity to the salt water source, Park says. She recommends submitting a water sample for analysis as soon as possible.

A powerful storm surged resulted in a boat being pushed from the harbor to Wexford Plantation’s 18th hole.
© Chris Neff and Patrick Reinhardt

The Ford Plantation features contrasting nines: a wooded, parkland-style front and open, links-style back. Nothing could be done to prepare for what happened to the back nine. Water from the storm surge covered 60 acres, deactivating state-of-the-art pumps added in a massive 2014 renovation. A Jacksonville-based company repaired the pumps and it took 48 hours to remove 48 million gallons of water. Once the water subsided, Caron says a “tremendous of debris” that floated onto the property had to be removed.

Despite the gypsum application before the storm, Caron says sodium levels “are through the roof,” and impossible to quantify because soil sensors are inoperable. Caron is planning another gypsum application next month. “Doing it in December is a little unusual,” he says. “But so are the circumstances.”

To expedite the removal of sodium, Park says purchase gypsum with calcium sulfate dihydrate and a finer particle size. “Soil test to help determine how much is needed,” she adds. “After an initial higher rate of fine particle gypsum is applied, lighter applications with more coarse particles may be applied depending on the severity of the problem.”

The Georgia Southern Golf Course is 60 miles from the Atlantic Coast, yet suffered tree damage from Hurricane Matthew.
© Chris Neff and Patrick Reinhardt

The Ford Plantation underwent overseededing in early September, and the storm surge “absolutely smoked the ryegrass,” Caron says. The base Bermudagrass handled the salt water “OK,” but a second overseed occurred in late October. Caron is now reassessing agronomic goals. “It’s not going to be our best turfgrass year,” he says. “But maybe it becomes more of a year of storm achievements.”

Superintendents at every course affected by a major weather disaster face the same challenge managing expectations in the ensuing months. A maze of questions awaits, ranging from what happened to specific trees to when will fairways and greens replicate past firmness or speeds. “I think it’s really smart to lay out a timeline for your club,” Caron says. “You are ahead of the game because you are just setting the expectations.”

Assessments might change a few months after the initial cleanup. O’Brien, for example, says a second round of tree removal isn’t uncommon. “They might have had some damage to the bark, some things that aren’t as visible,” he says. “These guys are focused on clearing up what has fallen. But some of these trees that are standing could be injured pretty bad.”

Everybody said it would never happen. But guess what? It happened.” —Chris Neff, Wexford Plantation

As October turned November, massive walls of cleared trees still greeted Neff and his team at the Wexford Plantation entrance. Similar walls were scattered throughout Hilton Head, a reminder of the order needed to endure a chaotic event.

“Everybody said it would never happen,” Neff says. “But guess what? It happened.”

Guy Cipriano is GCI’s associate editor.