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After the storm
Hurricanes Katrina and Rita take their toll on golf courses all along the Gulf Coast.
While Hurricane Katrina approached land on a Sunday afternoon in late August, the speculation on the damage it could cause was daunting.
After it hit, the reality of this disaster set in. New Orleans and areas all along the Gulf Coast would never be the same.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration declared Katrina the most destructive hurricane to ever strike the United States. At press time, the storm had claimed over 1,200 lives. And to make matters worse, several weeks later Hurricane Rita took a similar path to Katrina, giving many still cleaning up from the first storm a double dose of misery.
From reports gathered by GCM from the affected areas, the golf industry did not escape the storm’s wrath. Using media reports and a list of superintendents who had contacted GCSAA about disaster relief, in late September we began calling in search of tales from the storm’s path. Many of the numbers were inoperable — a drowned phone line representing a demolished home or maintenance facility. But some calls got through.
Once on the phone, we didn’t know how these members would react to our prying — would they even want to take the time to be interviewed? Turns out they were just happy to talk to someone on the outside, far removed from this disaster.
Rather than manipulate these talks into a single story, GCM presents the conversations in their own words. Because only the people who experienced these two natural disasters can properly describe them.
John Thornbar, a first-year GCSAA member, is well known around New Orleans. He’s a superintendent as well as a certified equipment manager and has worked for just about all the turf manufacturers in those parts. He has been the superintendent at Lakewood Country Club for three years before Hurricane Katrina hit.
“It’s nothing like what you’re seeing on TV. It’s three of four times worse.
I finally got back to New Orleans a week ago. I stayed one day, they had a curfew and what not, so I left, but what I saw was heartbreaking.
I was able to salvage family pictures and my dog. Everything else was gone, including two automobiles.
I've been living in that house for 40 years. To walk back and not be able to find yourhouse, or recognize your neighborhood... it knocks the wind out of you.
I called for my dog, Missy, and just prayed. Then I saw her, and she was so excited to see me, she ran right at me like she was going to eat me up. She’s a German shepherd, she lost about 15 to 20 pounds, but she protected my house for me while I was away. The ASPCA put a notice at my house that there was a bad dog there, but I beat them there.
For some reason I hung the photos in my house high on the walls. I only lost 12 out of 40 pictures to the water. Mold has taken over my house now.
Every tree on the course is uprooted — water damage on the entire back half. The equipment is 100 percent gone. There’s wind damage to the maintenance barn. The military went in and removed gas from the vehicles. We talked to someone who rode it out, they told us that. They needed that fuel, and the equipment was damaged anyway. Some of the equipment was turned over, and there was oil and gas everywhere.
It looks like the course has been shut down for 10 years with no maintenance. It looks like a tornado uprooted everything — it’s not a pretty sight.
Lakewood is a municipal course — owned by the New Orleans Fire Fighters Pension Board. We were scheduled to get a restoration. I just found out — and I don’t know how true it is, but it came from a high-ranking member of management — the restoration is cancelled, and FEMA is going to lease the land to put mobile homes up in the city. I understand, right now FEMA needs housing for people. Besides, it would take five years just for removal of trees.
Some golf courses fared well. New Orleans Country Club looked green. The reason I know that is because I live across the street from their driving range. In fact, the only thing that saved my house from all the debris was that driving range netting.
All my family is accounted for. It took two weeks for everyone to touch base, but we’re all OK. Some of us are in Texas, some in Louisiana, some in Atlanta. They’re all scheduled to come back — you need to be near your place when the insurance company comes around so you can make your claim.
I’m pretty well known in this area as a superintendent and an equipment manager. I’ve worked for E-Z-Go, ClubCorp, you name it — just about every manufacturer outside John Deere. I’m going to stay in this area to help this area — whatever comes my way.”
Scott McKnight, CGCS, is a 16-year GCSAA member. McKnight most recently worked as a turf consultant to several smaller courses in the New Orleans area before Hurricane Katrina struck. His family — wife, Jennifer, and two sons, Dillon, age 3, and Collin, age 2 — found refuge at McKnight’s parents’ house some 240 miles away from New Orleans.
“We evacuated the Saturday before the storm. We went to Baton Rouge, but then it looked like the storm wasn’t going to turn enough, so then we took off again, this time we went to Farmerville, La., where my parents live — we’ve been here since.
We’re probably going to move to Houston. The area we lived in was in New Orleans, 1 mile east of the 17th Street canal breach. The house is gone; it was under 12 feet of water.
I was able to visit my house for the first time last week. They just got the streets pumped dry. There’s still 2-3 inches of mud everywhere. All the grass, the shrubs, anything submerged was dead. It was very odd. At my house, I had huge azaleas. There’s not a leaf on anything now. The whole place is devoid of birds, squirrels, mosquitoes — it’s eerie. Inside the house, all my furniture was moved around, and a couple-hundred pound TV was moved. It’s complete devastation.
The golf course? You can’t even get there. The course is farther south… it’s going to take a while for golf in New Orleans to come back, between the floodwater, the lack of electricity... I heard at Timberlane (Country Club, Gretna, La.), they had 600 trees down. It’s going to affect this region for a very long time. So many people left New Orleans… frankly, I don’t know how many are coming back.
I could never fathom this. It’s a total life change — we’ve got a home we can’t go to, a neighborhood that’s totally changed. My doctor, the places I liked to eat, the zoo — they’re all gone. We’re starting over, but some things are irreplaceable. I never wanted a clean slate, but that’s what we got. The lesson I learned is don’t live below sea level. I’m looking forward to Houston. Even with (Hurricane Rita), they’re not below sea level, so the flooding won’t be the same.
My kids are doing pretty well at my parents’ house. Thank goodness they weren’t older and don’t have to remember all this.”
Brooks Mosley was two and a half years into his first head superintendent job when Katrina clobbered the Gulf Coast and his golf course, Great Southern Golf Club. The oldest in Mississippi, much of the 97-year-old venue, a mere long iron from the beach between Gulfport and Biloxi, was laid to waste by the hurricane’s 12-hour pounding. In the grim aftermath, Mosely, a five-year GCSAA member, faced the toughest job of his young career in getting the course in good enough shape to reopen — a configuration of nine holes was scheduled to be ready by mid-October, but the rest of the layout may not be playable before the end of the year.
“We lost 2,000 trees and had four greens — No. 4 and No. 18 and a putting green and a chipping green — and two tees completely washed away. We had two clubhouses... there’s nothing left of one but a slab and the other one, which was built in 1910, was three stories and now it’s one. We’ve had mountains of debris on the course from the homes right around us that were leveled.
The fourth hole, which comes back to the Gulf, has been the most photographed hole on the Gulf Coast. It still is now, I guess, but for another reason.
They said we had a 30-foot storm surge go through, but it’s hard for me to say, not being here and not hanging out and watching it. We (wife April and 1-year-old daughter Abby) got out and went up to Jackson (where Mosley used to work at Annandale GC). It took us about a week or 10 days to get back because of all the relief and recovery issues they had here. I’ve never seen anything like it — it’s more disbelief than anything... it’s hard to believe that something this bad happened.
We hired a contractor to clean up the trees — most of those we lost, about 1,600, are on the back side of the property, and the contractor is trying to get nine holes open there first. We’re taking bids to rebuild the lost greens and tees. We didn’t get power back until three weeks afterwards, so the rest of the greens had gone that long without water, but they’ve bounced back pretty good.”
Gavin Bauer is a native of Arkansas and spent some time at Annandale GC up in Jackson, Miss., before taking on his first head superintendent gig early last spring at Windance Golf & Country Club just north of Gulfport. “I’m not very familiar with these hurricanes,” the eight-year GCSAA member says. But he knows he dodged most of Katrina’s lethal bullets. Windance was one of just two courses among the more than two dozen in the region that reopened before the first of October.
“Basically, here, we didn’t get a lot of water. Fortunately, we’re about 15 miles off the coast. We had some flooding from local creeks that run through. Our biggest problem was that we counted 850 big pines down or snapped halfway off. Luckily, one of our members owns a timber company and he came in with his cutters and skidders once it dried out and got all the trees out. He said, ‘I want a place to play.’ He didn’t charge anything. Some of the quotes we had gotten from others were just unbelievable.
I just got married in July and moved my wife, Beth, down here. She was teaching at an elementary school down in Long Beach. Half that school was destroyed. Our apartment in North Gulfport came through the storm fine. We left town on the Saturday before it hit to beat the traffic and stayed with my wife’s parents in Jackson.”
Michael Simpson, CGCS at Bayou Oaks Golf Course in New Orleans, was finally getting a day of rest when GCM caught him on his cell phone some four weeks after the hurricane. Simpson’s cell phone was barely working — he had to keep it on speaker phone mode to hear incoming callers. Simpson has worked more overtime than he can remember, even though he hasn’t been at work in over a month. He spends his days helping family members clear trees and repair their homes.
“Bayou Oaks was a 72-hole facility. We had 18 holes shut down, so it was actually 54 holes when the hurricane hit. It’s a KemperSports property. We haven’t determined yet whether we’ll rebuild.
I’m north of Lake Pontchartrain, about 30 minutes from New Orleans. Things are getting much better. Power has been restored, the phone service is getting better. I’d say 95 percent of the people in my area have power right now.
We evacuated to Jackson, Miss., and we still got hit by a Category 1 hurricane. I came back here with my brother while my wife and kids went to Tennessee.
The power was out for two weeks. There was no water to drink. I couldn’t tell if I smelled better before or after a shower. My Blackberry, my cell phone, everything was down.
We were lucky; our house didn’t suffer much damage. It gave the family some time to really bond — there was no TV, no electricity. It was like the old wagon days.
I was told that (where Bayou Oaks GC) is located was the last part of New Orleans to drain. It was probably under water for two weeks. Do you think Tiff greens can hold their breath under saltwater for that long?
The clubhouse is lost; all the equipment was under water. It was 4, 5-feet deep in the clubhouse, and the clubhouse is the high point of the property. There could have been areas on the course that were under more than 10 feet of water.
(KemperSports) is having a meeting with City Park. It’s been over a month since I’ve worked now, but let me tell you, it’s certainly not been a month of vacation.
We left the day before the storm. We woke up early that day and they said it was a Category 5, we packed quick and left. It was mandatory for our parish. My brother and I came back. I went 18 days without seeing my family.
We were fortunate. Up until two months ago, we lived pretty close to Lake Pontchartrain. The apartment, the storage facility, everything would have been lost.
I never knew what it was like to not be able to communicate. I remember calling Janet Satterlee (GCSAA’s senior manager of chapter services) just to see if she had any information about other people in my chapter. I live in a large parish, to not be able to communicate… the nearest place to get mail was an hour and a half away — I’ve never even heard of that.
But everyone (in his family) is fine. Some are still in Tennessee. I’ve never seen anything affect so many people.
I’m just going to keep helping my family rebuild until I get a call from Kemper. If something happens that they decide they’re not going to rebuild, I’ll look for something else. We have a lot of family down here. I’d go into a different field of work if I had to. I’d rather not.”
Carol Gaffin is an 18-year GCSAA member and has spent 24 years at Mississippi National Golf Club, which was built in 1965 near Gautier, Miss., about 15 miles east of Biloxi Bay. After fearing the worst in the hours before Katrina made landfall, she was on track to have the resilient layout reopened early this month.
“We’ve been through a few of these storms — some of them stick in your mind, like Elena in ’85, Georges in ’98 and Ivan last year. We live in a mobile home, and it’s been through them all, but for some reason I just didn’t think it was going to make it through this one. My husband (Mike) and I both work at the course (he’s her assistant) and we carried our good things out to the garage, and the worse the storm got the more we carried out. We wound up staying with some friends who live right by the seventh hole. Our home came through all right. I was truly, truly surprised because it was really bad and you just figured there wouldn’t be anything left.
The golf course had a fair amount of trees down, about 200 big oaks and big pines — signature trees — and some minimal turf damage. But we had no flooding despite the fact that the Singing River runs behind the course. There was some clubhouse damage and damage to our halfway house out on the course.
When you look around down here and you see all the damage, you know how fortunate you are. We drove down near the Gulf and took pictures because it’s like something you’ll never see again. But you feel guilty, you feel like you’re not supposed to be there, you’re not supposed to be taking those pictures. It’s a real eerie feeling. They have nothing left.”
Tolbert Strahan, CGCS, has been in golf course management almost three decades, most of it in hurricane country, and he’s never experienced anything like Katrina. Yet, the 26-year GCSAA member saw a couple of silver linings in the storm clouds and rekindled the fires of perspective with his family — wife Barbara, daughter Emily and son Kyle. And, while his course, Grand Bear Golf Club, designed and built by Jack Nicklaus, owned by Harrah’s Grand Casino Gulfport in the vast DeSoto National Forest and one of America’s Top 100 public layouts, won’t ever be quite the same, it will be noted as one of the lucky ones.
“When we were building the course in 1998, a storm came through and we lost about 5,000 trees on the property. This time all those trees that were thinned along the fairways so golfers could hit out of the pine straw a little better were really susceptible to a 125-mph wind coming through open fairways. We figure we lost another 5,000. But the beauty is, it just gives us a free ticket to eliminate our shade problems. We pretty much had a good cleaning and didn’t have that much damage on the golf course itself other than part of it was under water for a while from the Big and Little Biloxi rivers. We were real fortunate in that respect.
I stayed through it while my family evacuated. Our home, which is not far from the course, was built the same year Hurricane Camille hit, 1969. We lost some trees and had some roof and water damage. The first three or four days it was surreal, like you were in a strange country. There was no phone service, no TV, you couldn’t drive anywhere because of all the debris and trees down. We were out of power about two weeks. Mentally, it was very stressful. After the wife and kids came back, it was so hot you couldn’t sleep in the house. My son and I put an air mattress in the back of my truck at night and lay there and looked up at the stars and slept. That was kind of neat.
You take everything for granted until something like this happens. There isn’t much else in life more important than your family and your relationship with your family. You can lose everything else and rebuild — possessions are just what they are.
Once we get all the stumps cleared, I think the integrity of the golf course from the tees, visually, will be a little different, but OK. We’re in this huge pine forest, and when you lose 5,000 trees you’ve still got a million more behind them. It’ll be easier to play out of the pine straw because there are fewer trees to work through. It’s more player-friendly.
We’re shooting to try and reopen by the middle of November. Harrah’s is spending a lot of money to clean all this up, so we’re assuming they aren’t going to let the course sit there with no play.”
Justin Pierson, a six-year GCSAA member, has been working at Bayou Din Golf Club in Beaumont, Texas, since he was 14 years old. Now the superintendent, it was in his 12th year at the course that Hurricane Rita would slam into both his place of work and his home as strong as a Category Four. His home was lost, but wife, Misty, son Marshall, and even the family pets – a dog named Lula Bell and a cat named Hester Bell – came out unscathed.
“The structure (of my house) is still there, but it’s very unlivable. When you go through something like this — I have a 5-month old — the house is unimportant. But the safety of your family is all that matters. It puts everything in perspective.
We left on Wednesday night, went 100 miles to stay with my grandparents. We checked the news and it was headed right for us. So we all went another 100 miles to Waco, and stayed with my wife’s grandparents.
After the hurricane, my uncle came in to survey the damage. When I got the phone call that my house was demolished and all my stuff was exposed, I left Waco. I got on the road at 10 p.m., arrived home at 3 a.m. The highways were fine. But as we got close, my parents were in front of me in a travel trailer, and the top would get hung up. We had to stop, lift power lines, tree limbs… we were one of the first ones to get back.
The course took it rough. The clubhouse was untouched, except the carpet bubbled up and it’s mildewed. My main concern is trees. We’re the only 27-hole course in the area, and we lost 80-percent of our trees. My employer wanted me to hire a tree clearing crew, but I’m concerned about my crew — even my family — that are unemployed right now. I told him, let us clear it. And we’ve already got 18 of the 27 cleared, and didn’t have to hire anyone.
I’ve got my Mom out there driving a Massey Ferguson tractor, pulling a 20-foot trailer. I’ve got my Dad on one side in a front-end loader, my uncle on the other, and a cousin out there as well. It’s inevitable that we’ll have to hire a tree crew for safety reasons — some trees are snapped right in half. But right now it’s almost all Piersons out there. They’ve really stepped up to the challenge.”
Gregg Munshaw, Ph.D., had made his second trip to the hurricane ravaged area of Mississippi when GCM caught up with him shortly before our publishing deadline for the November issue. Munshaw offered an interesting perspective on the hurricane damage as a turf researcher.
“We went to Bay St. Louis, Biloxi, Waveland… Bay St. Louis is where the storm came aground in Mississippi.
The bermuda is holding on, but the centipede is just cooked. We did measure the soil salinity; it varied significantly. There was a lot of sediment that came in with the water. Those areas are really high in salt. Luckily, with sandy soil, it will leach quickly. We measured the salinity of pond water at a course. The pond water was closer to sea water. The only choice that superintendent has is to drain the pond.
At one course, all the turf equipment was piled on top of each other. I’ve seen it all on TV, but until you see it all in person… it’s mind-blowing. And the smell is terrible there. This whole thing has been something to behold.”