Superintendents clean up after Hurricane Fran
hammers golf courses in North Carolina.
There's a reason it's called Cape Fear. Fear was the emotion of choice for many people on Thursday, Sept. 5, when Hurricane Fran smashed into the North Carolina coast. Fran and its 120-mph winds hit just east of Cape Fear and stretched up to North Topsail Beach. Fran's 12-foot storm surge washed away homes and demolished beaches.
As if that wasn't enough, Fran then tore through Wilmington and cut a swath of devastation up Interstate 40 to Raleigh. Ripping giant trees out of the ground and tossing them like twigs, the Category 3 hurricane caused a surprising amount of damage to property inland. Officials estimate at least 22 people were killed in the hurricane, which became a tropical storm as it moved up into Virginia, causing extreme flooding and more damage as its winds still gusted up to 73 mph. An estimated 1.6 million people were without power for days. President Clinton immediately declared North Carolina and Virginia disaster areas. Maryland and Pennsylvania were later declared disaster areas as well.
Fran caused damage on golf courses from South Carolina to Virginia. Flooding extended up into West Virginia, the District of Columbia and Maryland. Courses suffering the most damage, however, were located on the coast and in the Wilmington and Raleigh areas.
A bad day to have an ocean view
Bald Head Island Country Club, a semiprivate 18-hole layout, is situated on a barrier island that juts out into Cape Fear. Accessible only by boat, the resort-type facility is not a safe location when a hurricane strikes the North Carolina coast. Superintendent Dick Brandel, a six-year GCSAA member, and his crew had already left the island when Fran hit.
"We left Thursday around 1 p.m. We were on the second to the last ferry out," he says. "We looked back and wondered if we would ever see it again."
The eye of the hurricane passed through at 8:47 p.m. Brandel and his crew returned the next day to find the island in pretty good shape, considering its location. "We had some salt burn from the sea spray; a 6-foot tidal surge took out some of our dunes, and we had some surge encroachment on a couple of fairways. But we were lucky," Brandel says.
Brandel notes that tree damage would have been much worse if Hurricane Bertha hadn't come through in July. "Bertha was a blessing as it turned out," he says. "She had already taken down a lot of weak and dead trees. With Fran, a lot of the old growth suffered damage, and we lost live oaks, native cedars and cabbage palms. A lot of our big old cedars went down."
Rainfall was another problem at Bald Head. Between the hurricane and a pesky low-pressure system, the club received more than 13 inches of rain in a few days.
So how did the club do so well? "Clean living and a lot of luck!" Brandel says with a chuckle. "I am probably one of the luckiest superintendents around here. We have had the western eye of two hurricanes go over us within six weeks of each other. For a difference of only 15 miles, we'd be devastated."
Lady Luck definitely played a part in Bald Head's survival, but Brandel and his crew's preparations before the storm hit certainly helped. Because of Bald Head's location, the club has a thorough hurricane preparation plan. All maintenance equipment and golf cars were moved to designated places behind the dune line and as high as possible. "Equipment comes on and off the island by barge, and it doesn't run when the weather's bad," he says. "We have to leave it all here."
Brandel's crew is also responsible for boarding up the windows in the clubhouse and pool area. The 18,000-square-foot building has many, many windows. The maintenance crew was able to complete the job in only three and one-half hours, however, because each window has its own premeasured, precut and numbered piece of plywood.
When Bertha was bearing down on the island, it was still tourist season. More than 1,300 guests had to be evacuated on only four ferry boats. Even though the largest boat holds about 145 people, planning is a must. There were fewer guests to evacuate for Fran, but there's never any room for error.
"We have a very extensive written plan, and we know, minute-by-minute, what has to be done," Brandel says. "We keep track of who is still on the island and who's not, and we know exactly when every guest and every resort employee leaves."
Power was restored to the entire island by Sept. 8 and Bald Head CC had both courses open by Saturday, Sept. 21.
Ocean water and golf greens don't mix
Patrick Connell, a 10-year GCSAA member and superintendent at North Shore Golf & Country Club in Sneads Ferry, N.C., saw the north end of the storm as it hit land. Just a hop and a skip from North Topsail Beach, one of the areas featured by news outlets because of its extreme devastation, North Shore was probably lucky, too. North Shore's problem was saltwater damage. Lots of it.
"We lost one green completely, and we have several other greens with salt damage," Connell says, adding that after the hurricane came through, the sun came out and scalded the greens that had salt water on them. "We weren't able to get the pumps up because we didn't have any power."
A green submerged by the storm had to be completely reseeded. Another eight damaged greens also were reseeded. Connell says the problem may still need some monitoring, and he expects to be taking soil samples to check for salinity for some time.
Tree cleanup is another task high on the list at North Shore. Connell estimates that 400 trees were lost during Hurricane Bertha and another 400 during Hurricane Fran.
"We definitely know how to cut a tree down now," he says, adding that the goal was to have nine holes open on Sept. 21. "We're picking the best nine out of the whole 18 so we can open. We really haven't projected when all 18 will open. We're just going to wait and see."
Time to call the logging company
On up the Intercoastal Waterway from Cape Fear, directly in the path of Hurricane Fran, Landfall Country Club awaited its fate. Superintendent Gary Smither and his crew had done what they could.
"We secured the golf course and the club buildings, and we got things up off the course that could become missiles in a hurricane," Smither says.
Unfortunately, there was no way to prepare for what happened. The hurricane tore down trees and dragged debris across greens. The accompanying tidal surge came up and invaded several holes. Landfall's Pete Dye course, which sits right on the Intercoastal Waterway, suffered damage from salt spray and the storm surge. The club was assaulted by 100-mph winds with gusts up to 130 to 140 mph.
Smither, a 20-year GCSAA member, counted 284 trees down on the Dye course, and he estimated about 1,200 trees were down on the club's Jack Nicklaus course. Earlier, Hurricane Bertha had destroyed 600 trees.
Trees from Fran also fell on about a dozen houses surrounding the golf course property. "From a total debris standpoint, Bertha was worse," Smither says. "Then Fran came along and wiped out the bigger trees."
Trees fell in the rough, trees fell on the course, trees fell on irrigation controllers, completely destroying them. Trees fell along golf car paths, ripping up concrete as their roots came up out of the ground.
Smither hired a contractor and called the logging company. Yep . . . the logging company. "We're part of Weyerhaeuser," he says of the company that deals in wood products. "We brought in our Weyerhaeuser logging operation out of New Bern, N.C., to help with the trees."
The Dye clubhouse withstood the battering pretty well, losing many shingles and suffering a little water damage. The new clubhouse being built on the Nicklaus course didn't fare as well. It was under construction and plans called for it to open at the end of October. That was no longer likely. It lost shingles and had water damage, but the real damage was seen in one of the walls, which shifted about 3 inches.
Smither says the club had 19 inches of rain in eight days, and it had 42 inches of rain from May through the middle of September. Considering that the yearly average is around 54 inches, Smither expects more problems related to the high rainfall total.
The Dye course was open by Sept. 13, and Smither estimated that the Nicklaus course would open Oct. 19. It could have been worse, Smither says, noting that the storm surge came at low tide.
Hanging in there
Eight miles in from the ocean, at Cape Fear Country Club in Wilmington, N.C., Michael Claffey, a 25-year GCSAA member, was still cleaning up and counting his costs in late September.
"Everybody around here has a lot of work to do," he says, noting that Cape Fear CC lost 200 trees to Fran and around 80 to Bertha. The club was without power for four days.
"We're estimating that our cleanup will cost around $60,000, and we'll have another $12,000 per month in equipment costs," says Claffey, who rented chippers, a backhoe loader and a tub grinder. "We were fortunate because we didn't have any damage to structures. Our cleanup was mostly trees and debris."
Claffey estimated that the entire course would be open by Oct. 1. "It's frustrating, but we're hanging in there," he says. "You just have to take it day-by-day."
Nobody got in and nobody got out
On up north and west of Wilmington, near where Interstate 40 meets Interstate 95, the eye of the hurricane slammed into Buies Creek, the home of Keith Hills Country Club. Superintendent John Williams, CGCS and a 10-year GCSAA member, drove the five miles to the club in an hour and a half the following day, fighting high water, downed trees and tree limbs the entire way. When he arrived, he discovered that he and his crew couldn't get into the development, and the residents couldn't get out.
He could see extensive flooding and tree damage, but he couldn't do anything about either. The Cape Fear River had flooded Buies Creek, which runs right through the golf course. Water over the entrance road was impossible to ford.
"All my equipment was in there, and I was out here," Williams recalls. "Most of my staff showed up on that first day. We couldn't do anything, so I sent them home to deal with their own problems."
Water covered all but the greens on about eight holes, and hundreds of trees were uprooted. "I lost trees that were 100, 150 years old," Williams says. "They were not small at all. The smallest trees we lost were 18 to 20 inches in diameter."
All bunkers were washed out, and the irrigation system suffered serious damage. The pump house on the river flooded, with two of three suction lines breaking off. Williams still didn't have the irrigation system running as of Sept. 18, but a few small showers had watered the grass adequately to that point.
Williams hired contractors to help his crew deal with the trees. First priority was getting the roads cleared, then getting the trees off of the greens, then off the fairways, then off the roughs. "We're hiring outside contractors with tub grinders, backhoes and trackhoes to get the stumps out," he says. "I'm estimating around $100,000 costwise, plus two weeks of lost revenue."
Keith Hills opened Sept. 19, exactly two weeks after Fran's unwelcome visit.
Since when do hurricanes hit Raleigh?
When the eye of the hurricane arrived in Raleigh -- nearly 150 miles inland, no less -- Butch Sheffield, CGCS, was outside in the thick of it, using a chain saw to battle fallen trees. He wasn't out there by accident, and it wasn't to save something on his golf course, North Ridge Country Club.
A 22-year GCSAA member, Sheffield is also a volunteer firefighter, and his goal was to reach two occupants of a car trapped underneath a power line. Sheffield and the other firefighters had to cut through trees fallen across the road, rescue the passengers in the car, and then turn around and cut their way back out, as their path was again blocked.
"It took longer to cut our way in and out than it did to rescue them," Sheffield says. "Trees were falling around us the whole time."
When Sheffield got home, he discovered that a tree had fallen across his house, yet his house was among those least damaged. Most of the houses in his neighborhood had an encounter with at least one falling tree.
Considering his close-up view of the hurricane's fury, Sheffield was not surprised to discover the trees down at North Ridge CC. "We suffered substantial damage. We have two 18-hole courses, and our initial estimate is a total loss of 800 trees. We lost massive oaks and massive pines. The cleanup is quite a project."
Sheffield adds that the club also suffered extensive flooding, but the greens escaped in pretty good shape. Most of the facilities at North Ridge came through the storm OK, but one small bridge did not. Sheffield planned to have one course open on Sept. 21 and the other course open on Oct. 5.
Irrigation controllers go for a swim
In the Raleigh suburb of Cary, superintendent Jeff Granger rounded up his assistants at MacGregor Downs Country Club Friday morning after the hurricane and started cutting trees out of the streets. One of their first priorities was helping residents deal with the destruction.
"Homes were just destroyed," he says. "There were trees in people's houses, in their beds and everything," Granger says. "The first day or two you have to concentrate on getting people's lives back together. Then you worry about the golf course."
MacGregor Downs lost about 400 trees, a number Granger says is pretty typical for the area. "Golf courses in Raleigh lost around 400 to 1,000 trees. The triangle (an area bounded by Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill) got leveled. We heard Carolina Country Club won't be open for six to eight weeks."
(GCM repeatedly tried to reach Bob Rogers, CGCS at Carolina CC in Raleigh, but there was no answer at his number. We took that as our answer as to how things were at his place.)
Other damage at MacGregor Downs included bridges picked up and battered by floodwaters and irrigation controllers lost to high water.
"You put the controllers in a spot where you think water could never get to them and then it does; it's very discouraging," Granger says. "You start getting irrigation controllers going for a swim . . . that's not good. Those are like, $2,500. This whole thing should cost our club around $70,000, and that's probably conservative. We've had to contract a lot of it out. For Sept. 8-17, I had $11,673 in golf course labor on top of what we're paying the contractor."
Granger says it could have been more costly had he not been following a consistent program to remove trees around the greens. "I've been here nine years, and I've been taking trees out from around the greens as part of an ongoing tree management program to increase air circulation around them. I was glad I'd been doing that."
Granger is also monitoring the tree removal to ensure that no "hangers" are left to create a liability problem later. Limbs hanging in trees can look secure, but you never know when they might fall and strike a golfer or a resident, he says.
MacGregor opened nine holes the week of Sept. 18, with the rest of the facility opening as soon as possible. "We've got nine open, but they're playing around obstacles," Granger says.
The lucky ones
Other superintendents in northern North Carolina suffered downed trees and some localized flooding. Every superintendent GCM talked with mentioned the above-average rainfall.
Joel Ratcliff, CGCS at Sedgefield Country Club, was pleased to report that he and his colleagues in the Greensboro area fared pretty well.
"It was a tropical storm by the time it got to us," he says. "We sustained 40-mph winds with gusts up to 55, and we received a total of about 9 inches of rain in three or four days. There's an average of 30 to 40 downed trees at each course." David Downing II, CGCS at Wild Wing Plantation in Conway, S.C., reported 300 to 400 downed trees. Downing says the hurricane came at a bad time for his course, as they were in the middle of overseeding, but he says he feels lucky.
"The eye of the storm went north of us, so we got the back end of it and weren't hit so bad," he says. "We feel sorry for the guys up north, but we're glad it missed us."
The rainfall hurt Wild Wing more than anything, Downing says. "We had 17 inches in about 14 days. Nine came with the hurricane, and the rest came before and after."
Other golf courses in the Myrtle Beach area reported that they were fully operational by Sept. 9.
As the damaged courses were trying to pick up the pieces and open for business in mid-September, Hurricane Hortense had sputtered out, and no new storms loomed. Several superintendents cautioned, however, that the almanac predicted "one more big one" this year. Everyone hopes the almanac is wrong, just this once.
Be prepared for next year
Many will be sighing in relief as the hurricane season wraps up this month. The storms may develop a little earlier and a little later, but weather experts tell us that the most dangerous time of the year, the official hurricane season, runs from June 1 to Nov. 30.
GCSAA Information Services has an information packet available on hurricane preparation. It's free for members and $30 for nonmembers. It contains a preparation checklist for each stage of the storm, from initial notification of possible landfall to the time of return to the property. It also includes information about previous hurricanes and their damage to golf courses, as well as tips for dealing with saltwater infiltration in turfgrass. You can obtain the packet by calling 913/832-3600.
Kay Hawes is associate editor of GCM.