Hurricane History: Checking in with turf pros as they try to get back to normal

By |  October 18, 2017 0 Comments

With two Category 4 hurricanes making landfall in the United States within only 16 days of each other, we check in with turf professionals as they pick up the pieces.

Harvey and Irma: Two names forever connected in infamy in the United States.

These two hurricanes wreaked havoc across the southern and southeastern United States for weeks. The two storms combined killed more than a hundred Americans, displaced hundreds of thousands and caused billions in damage.

Though damage to any golf course is secondary to the loss of a home, or worse, a life, golf is Golfdom’s business. The following are reports from turf professionals who found themselves in the paths of Harvey and Irma.

Reporting from Houston, Texas

Chris Ortmeier
Superintendent // Champions Golf Club

Chris Ortmeier, superintendent at Champions Golf Club, called the flooding from heavy rainfall in April 2016 the “hardest part of his career,” but he is grateful for that experience now because it prepared him for the even worse flooding the course saw during Hurricane Harvey.

The 36-hole facility has two courses, Jackrabbit, which opened back up two days after the storm hit because it didn’t sustain any flooding, and Cypress Creek, named for the creek that runs through the golf course and creeps onto the course during major flooding events.

“I haven’t finalized the numbers yet but had close to 90 to 100 acres of the golf course on Cypress Creek go under water,” adds Ortmeier. “Of that, we had six greens totally submerged and another three partial. They were saying (the April 2016 flood) was a 500-year flood, and (Harvey) blew that one away.”

Hurricane Harvey preparations started at Champions GC about a week before it hit, and Ortmeier had his staff performing typical severe weather maintenance like spraying growth regulators and mowing everything out, but he also took his experience from 2016 into account.

“We learned last year we had to pull all of the electrical components out of our field satellites and power down our pump house,” says Ortmeier. “We also rented three pumps, and once the creek started to recede we were out there using the floodwater to push the silt off the greens.”

Golfdom talked to Ortmeier almost three weeks after Harvey hit, and the Cypress Creek course had all but one hole open for play.

“We’re probably 85 percent recovered,” says Ortmeier. “It’s still going to take some time before we get caught back up on all the details, but for the most part we’re coming along pretty good.”

— Grant B. Gannon, associate editor

Reporting from Marco Island, Fla.

Todd Evans
Director of Grounds // JW Marriott Marco Island Resort

Todd Evans and his family “have been camping out” at their home since Hurricane Irma, with power restored only the night before he spoke with Golfdom. Evans is director of grounds for the Rookery Course and Hammock Bay Course at Florida’s JW Marriott Marco Island Resort.

“It was catastrophic,” Evans says. “The eye basically went right over the top of Marco Island, which we’re about two miles from. Catastrophic tree damage on both courses.” He says he’s “not even able to take a guess yet” on downed tree numbers.

Although the venue was spared the water surges seen in so many places, Evans says, “We did have some pretty good flooding on the Rookery golf course, and we’re basically just starting to get to the tree work on the Rookery. We took all our resources and the contractors we hired, and we put them all on Hammock Bay and we got that course all cleaned up, and we’ll be ready to open that course on Friday (Sept. 22).” No turf currently is under water, and the Rookery is expected to open Nov. 2.

To prepare, Evans and his staff wrapped control boxes, took the pump station offline and removed anything that could take flight. So, bunker rakes and hazard stakes, tee markers and ball washers all were brought in. A lot of effort, he notes, was directed toward securing the courses’ dual clubhouses.

Evans went through Hurricane Andrew in 1992, and says recovery from Irma should follow the same timeline.

— Ed Hiscock, editor-at-large

Reporting from Galveston, Texas

Jeff Smelser
CGCS // Galveston CC

Hurricane Harvey swept through the Houston area and Galveston Island in late August, dumping more than three feet of water in some areas. However, according to Jeff Smelser, CGCS, Galveston (Texas) Country Club, his course has seen worse.

“Our real problem when we get storms is the high tide,” explains Smelser. “We have berms that keep the real high tides out, but put 31 inches of rain on top of the high tide and there is nowhere for that water to go.”

The course closed Aug. 25 for hurricane preparation, which consisted of the 11-person crew spraying fungicides, removing irrigation controllers and moving everything that wasn’t cemented down to the maintenance shop, which sits approximately 10 feet above sea level.

Smelser recalls that the same maintenance shop took on six feet of water during 2008’s Hurricane Ike. He says his staff learned a lot from that experience, which devastated Galveston Island and caused the club to close for three months. “We lost everything during Ike,” he says. “We were lucky this time. We just had massive high tides and massive rains — we didn’t have storm surges on top of that.”

Once the tides went down, the course drained off quickly. Smelser’s team hand raked 120 acres of grass, filling nearly one and a half 40-yard dumpsters with debris. The course lost only six of its 1,200 palm trees, but all bunkers were completely washed out, so the next order of business was clearing and refilling them with fresh sand.

The golf course reopened Sept. 2. “It wasn’t in great shape,” says Smelser. “But one thing we learned from Ike is that people want to come out and see how the course is doing.”

— Abby Hart, managing editor

Reporting from Fort Myers, Fla.

Andy Engelbrecht
Agronomic Sales Representative // SiteOne Landscape Supply

While all eyes were on Texas and Louisiana for Hurricane Harvey, record-breaking rain fell in southwest Florida — as much as 10 inches in Fort Myers.

With the ground saturated and even more rain coming down in Hurricane Irma’s path, tree roots could not hold as close to 80-140 mph winds raced through the region.

“I’ve been to many courses and I’ve seen hundreds and hundreds of trees down,” says Andy Engelbrecht, agronomic sales representative with SiteOne Landscape Supply in southwest Florida. According to Engelbrecht, some of the biggest obstacles facing the area include massive tree damage, extensive flooding and power outages.

To make matters worse, several days of hot temperatures followed in Irma’s wake, and crews not only had to deal with flooding but also had to tend to areas in desperate need of water. With no power to irrigation systems, crews relied on water wagons to hand water areas in need.

Engelbrecht and other representatives from SiteOne are helping those affected by Hurricane Irma by bringing lunches and water to courses while crews continue the cleanup work.

“We’re trying to be there as much as we can,” says Engelbrecht. “What they really need is people, power and chainsaws.”

— Kelly Limpert, digital editor

Reporting from Fort Myers, Fla.

Bryce Koch
CGCS // Cypress Lake CC

The crew at Cypress Lake Country Club already planned on having a lot of maintenance work on their docket this time of year, even before Hurricane Irma started making news. They just thought it would be to put the finishing touches on their 3-year restoration project.

Superintendent Bryce Koch told Golfdom that 13 inches of rain fell on his course in four days before the hurricane, then 18 inches fell during the storm.

Before Irma, new grass had been planted on the course and had been taking well. Luckily, Koch says, only some of it has to be replaced because of flooding.

Some areas of the newly planted grass will have to be replaced, and crews will have to repair bunkers that were completely washed out. But what really took a hit was the overall design of the course.

Because of weakened root systems, a tremendous amount of rain and high-speed winds, Cypress Lake lost 180 trees on its 18-hole course, effectively changing the course layout and sight lines.

“We’re looking at bringing our architect back in to revise some of the holes,” says Koch. “Some of the holes have completely changed with the loss of trees.”

Koch and his team anticipate three weeks of tree and debris cleaning, but thankfully, everyone is safe.

— K.L.

Reporting from Savannah, Ga.

Nelson Caron
Director of Golf Course Maintenance and Grounds // The Ford Plantation Club

Storm surge aftermath was the major Irma problem for Nelson Caron, director of golf course maintenance and grounds at the private Ford Plantation Club in hard-hit Savannah, Ga. Another hurricane problem, that is, after the damage caused by Hurricane Matthew when it ravaged coastal Georgia last October.

Irma inundated Savannah with a storm surge of 4.7 feet and combined with tidal swells for nightmare water of up to 15 feet, with 14 feet washing over half the property at Ford Plantation.

Family safe, power on at home and the fallen tree on his garage taken care of, Caron turned his attention to the course, which lost about 3,500 trees during Matthew, compared to about three dozen with Irma. He and his staff pumped 4 feet of water off about 100 acres, leaving two feet standing on the course.

Storm preparation included movement of the course’s 40-person staff “to the right positions” learned from Matthew and other storms. This included some staff staying at the course, some being placed in hotels, and others staying with club members, some of whom paid staff’s home insurance deductibles after Matthew.

Caron also ordered gypsum. “We’ll have a tough time with the water and the elevated salt levels,” he says.

The course will open for the season as scheduled Oct. 1, but Caron says, “I’ll probably feel pretty good by next May.” To which he adds, “I’ll take trees over water any time.”

— E.H.

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