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The 2005 hurricane season may have scarred the golf industry, but it also left behind valuable lessons for superintendents.
In the grand scheme of the widespread destruction and massive recovery efforts from these storms, the impact on the golf course industry might seem insignificant. But try telling that to those who work at coastal courses along the Gulf of Mexico, anywhere from Houston to the tip of the Florida Keys, or in the Atlantic Basin.
In the last several months, many of the sport’s venues in those regions have struggled to resume operations. Some have reopened, some haven’t and some never will. Nor will the lives of scores of golf course superintendents ever be the same. Many of those caught in the mass of human suffering from the likes of Hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Wilma, to name a notorious few, are still in the profession. Many are not. They all view golf course management a little differently these days.
For the survivors, the motto immortalized in more innocent and youthful endeavors — “Be Prepared” — has a new, more serious meaning. Hurricanes are a way of life for golf courses on the nation’s southern edges, but after the past year and considering warnings from national weather experts that such violent activity is more likely to be the rule rather than the exception in coming years, there is cause for higher awareness.
“The magnitude of what happened, like Katrina, raises a whole new concern of whether you are taking all the steps you need to take to protect your facility,” says Scott McKnight, CGCS, a veteran superintendent in New Orleans who lost his home and a lot more when that storm laid waste to the city late last August.
McKnight, a 16-year GCSAA member who had been at English Turn Golf & Country Club for more than a dozen years before getting into consulting work about a year ago, moved his family to Houston after Katrina and as of the end of February still hadn’t found a job (his wife, Jennifer, is a CPA there). He’s among a handful of turf management professionals GCM contacted for insights on preparing one’s course for the worst, as they now know it.
The others include:
All have varying degrees of experience with hurricanes. Perhaps their ideas will assist others in harm’s way.
Tip #1: Have a plan
Munshaw recalls during a recent regional seminar for Sports Turf Care and Landscape, held by the Mississippi State University Extension office, the comments of a field manager from the Gulf Coast who said one of the toughest things following last year’s storms was the loss of contact with employees when it was time to bring some normality back to life by getting recreation fields back in play. “He said what was needed was a plan that included contact numbers for employees and when they could meet after things calmed down and it’s time to get back to business,” Munshaw says.
At Indian Creek CC, Pantaleo has formal documents that lead preparations there. “We have a hurricane manual. It’s a very businesslike approach to leading up to a storm,” says the 15-year GCSAA member, who notes that his facility was hit by four hurricanes on Florida’s Atlantic coast in 2005. The worst was Wilma, which destroyed more than 200 trees on the course and caused some salt damage to its bermuda turf.
“We’ve learned a lot about making sure we have accurate phone numbers so we’ll know when crews can report back to work and for how long,” Pantaleo says. “It’s a balancing act because of families. With repetition, you learn to be more effective and predictable.”
“I think after the last year more courses will take a more proactive stance to develop a plan and ultimately communicate that plan to employees, members and the general public so everyone is on the same page,” says McKnight, who prepped for an annual PGA Tour event during most of his stint at English Turn G&CC.
Tip #2: Anticipate, then react
“If it appears it will be bad enough that you’ll lose power and probably won’t be able to get fuel to run the equipment, you’ve got to do anything you can to slow down the growth of the grass ahead of time,” says Pantaleo, who usually sprays the Indian Creek fairways with a plant growth regulator if a storm is forecast.
Mayberry, a seven-year member of GCSAA who came to New Orleans CC as an assistant just in time to play a role in a major renovation of the course in 2003, says, “Budget for extra fungicide, if you can, for turf prep ahead of a storm. You can also cut back on mowing — anything to make the turf as healthy as it can be at the time.”
“Get a generator; store fuel,” says Munshaw, who points out that one of the biggest agronomic problems following a big blow is not being able to irrigate greens and leach salt water down through the turf.
Irrigation has certainly moved to the top of the list for Pierson, a six-year GCSAA member who lost electricity for three weeks at Bayou Din after Rita ripped through in late September. He also almost lost the greens at the privately owned, 27-hole public facility, which was 80 percent under water for a time and lost almost 350 trees.
“My main wish now is to have something to run the irrigation system; an emergency generator to power up the pump station, if it’s still standing,” says Pierson. His saving graces amid the hot, dry weather that followed the hurricane were the protection of a November overseed once power was restored and a mild winter. The greens (Tifgreen on the original 18 holes and Tifdwarf on a new nine) recovered enough in time for an October reopening.
“I don’t have a lot of regrets about things I did before the storm, other than auxiliary power,” Pierson adds. “At the time, I didn’t think lack of rain would be one of our problems.”
New Orleans CC was without power for five weeks, and for about half that time the urban layout was flooded. Mayberry and an equipment mechanic were the only staff members who stayed on through the aftermath — loyalty that helped earn the seven-year GCSAA member the head superintendent job. He made a crucial decision in November to use white, permeable (for light and air) greens covers to help the TifEagle rebound. The course reopened part-time in December and full-time in mid-March. During that stretch, Mayberry and his new staff of eight would remove the covers on Thursday mornings for weekend play and put them back on Sunday nights. “They’re awesome — a great way to trap the heat and get that grass bouncing back,” he says of the covers.
Tip #3: Nip it in the bud
Tip #4: Get high and dry
“Get everything out on the course picked up — rakes, flags, tee markers, ball washers — anything that could ultimately become a projectile. Get everything stabilized,” says McKnight.
Mayberry adds that getting computers to a safe location is vital. Make a special effort to save the hard drive and its key information such as irrigation infrastructure and settings. He also suggests utilizing equipment lifts in the maintenance facility to raise water and fuel tanks high off the ground. “One thing I’ll do next time,” he says, “is get some kind of high trailer for a spray rig and utility vehicles. Those are priceless in the aftermath.”
McCranie, whose experience includes stints at the World Golf Village in St. Augustine and Isleworth Country Club near Orlando, remembers when Hurricane Floyd was bearing down on the WGV in 1999, all the heavy equipment figured to be needed afterward — tractors, loaders, trailers — as well as chainsaws and other such cleanup wherewithal, were moved out on the course to one of the big par-5 fairways to ride out the storm and then be available and ready to go.
Tip # 5: Cover your assets
Indeed, governmental intrusion, if you will, has caused damage almost beyond repair for some venues that became locations for emergency campsites and temporary evacuee housing. National Guard helicopters landed on the greens at New Orleans CC, and troops bivouacked in the fairways.
“Get a policy in place, if you can, that the local government will support, and you might minimize some of those issues,” says Munshaw, who on one of his visits to the stricken Mississippi coast witnessed various recovery and rescue personnel and equipment taking over a youth soccer field while a nearby 40-acre parking lot stood vacant.
Preparing ahead of time to navigate the insurance minefield after a storm is also crucial. “Utilize any time you have before a storm to take photos — before and after, actually — and have hard copies of all documents, like lease agreements and insurance, then organize everything so it’s easy to grab,” says Pierson, who noted that the jury will be out on Bayou Din’s greens and possible insurance claims until after the overseeding transition.
“Videotape everything — the golf course itself and all the accessories, all the equipment, office equipment, everything,” suggests McCranie, an 11-year GCSAA member. “You do it in case there is an issue with what’s on paper and what’s really there.”
Mayberry points out that a complete inventory of all golf course items and documents is only as good as how often it is updated. “It’s good to keep one thing in mind,” he adds. “You can never be too prepared. There’s always something.”