Lessons from a Challenging Year

By | February 1st, 2018

At Eagle Creek G&CC, Superintendent Jimmy Alston took the measure of a toppled banyan tree that was just one of 1,500 felled on the property after Hurricane Irma’s near-Category 4 winds blew through Naples, Fla.

What all clubs can learn about risk management and disaster recovery from the floods, hurricanes and wildfires that disrupted many properties in 2017.

Many club and resort properties honor nature by including words such as lake, forest or woods as prominent parts of their names. But when Mother Nature is of a mind to show her nastier side, such tributes are never enough to spare any property that might find itself in her path.

And while every year presents weather-related threats to club operations throughout the country, 2017 left its mark as one that was especially unrelenting in terms of the geographic reach, calendar coverage, variety and extreme impact of natural calamities inflicted on industry properties. From wildfires that raged the length of the West Coast to a flood of biblical proportions in Texas and a hurricane that was epic enough—at least as predicted—to shake up even the most storm-hardened Floridian, this past year, and especially its second half, put the emergency-preparedness and disaster-recovery plans of an especially large segment of the business to some of their most rigorous tests ever.

Lakeside CC’s 68,000-sq. ft. clubhouse was destroyed by four feet of water that swamped the property after Hurricane Harvey hit Houston.

It may take all of 2018, or even longer, for some club properties that were caught in 2017’s extended “storm surge” to return to anything resembling fully restored or replaced operations. But already, the industry has wasted little time in once again rolling up its collective sleeves and showing remarkable resolve and resiliency, as the damages inflicted on affected properties during the past year have been assessed, and the steps needed to get them up and running again have been outlined and pursued.

In large part, this is because those who work in the club business are among the best at anticipating, and overcoming, what even the worst-case scenarios can throw at them. As a result, the lasting impact from the disaster-related challenges that many clubs had to endure in 2017 is likely to be that the industry will now have an even better set of best practices to follow.

Here are the stories of some of the properties that were put to the most severe tests at the end of last year—and what members of their management teams say were the keys to not only being able to live to tell about what they went through, but also why they can now speak confidently of a belief that they, and their clubs, will actually be stronger for the experience.

Houston: Rising Above A Historic Flood

When you’ve been the General Manager for seven years of a club property of more than 200 acres that runs up against the Buffalo Bayou, the slow-moving river that flows through Houston, Texas, preparing for and dealing with flooding issues is certainly “not new,” says Craig Schaner, who holds that position with Houston’s Lakeside Country Club.

But while Lakeside’s prior experience with such situations, combined with Schaner’s own educational and professional background in hospitality management, had always kept the club well aware of the need to anticipate and be ready to respond to even the most dire flooding scenarios imaginable, no degree of disaster planning, Schaner says, could have fully prepared the club for what hit the property on the last weekend of August.

Fire & Ice

In January, an ice storm hit the property, coating all limbs and branches on the golf course with up to two inches of ice, reports General Manager Mark Mayfield. It took crews three months to clean up the debris shed by the trees due to the extra weight, even as snow covered the golf course for six weeks.

“It was the worst winter we had in three decades,” Mayfield says.

The property then caught a break for a few months of good business before a heat wave hit, bringing smoke from Canadian wildfires onto the property. “It was bad enough that the Environmental Protection Agency issued health warnings for going outside,” Mayfield says.

Then, on September 2, came the Eagle Creek fire, the source of a now-famous image, that was shot by amateur photographer Kristi McCluer and then went viral after journalist and producer David Simon posted it on Twitter. While it appears in the photo that the fire is looming dangerously close to the property, the Columbia River actually separated the golf course—and the seemingly oblivious golfers—from the blaze.

The Eagle Creek wildfire burns as golfers play at the Beacon Rock Golf Course in North Bonneville, Washington. Photo courtesy Reuters/Kristi McCluer

“There wasn’t much notification or sense of urgency until they started evacuating [the town of] Cascade Locks, Ore.,” Mayfield says. “Our biggest concern was that the Washington State Police did not let any vehicles park on Highway 14 to view the fire, so our parking lot filled with several dozen cars.”

The fire, which was 100% contained by November 30, grew to 3,000 acres on its first night, and ultimately reached 48,831 acres.

For Beacon Rock GC, damage from the fire came in the form of debris falling on the course. Several other fires were started on Beacon Rock’s side of the river, Mayfield says, but were quickly extinguished. Staff monitored the property for any fire outbreaks, though “potential was minimal, due to the irrigated property,” he notes.

“Every day had enough smoke to limit visibility,” Mayfield says. “We just did the best we could.”

On September 6, Mayfield received an e-mail containing the photos that McCluer took, asking if they were real or had been Photoshopped. The golf course posted the images on its Facebook page, with the caption: “Our golfers are committed to finishing the round!” The post received “just over a quarter-million hits in a few days,” Mayfield says, noting that there were some negative comments from “people making wild assumptions.”

“In the end,” he adds about the whole experience, “I was happy for our ’15 minutes’ to be over with.”

That’s when Harvey, the first major hurricane to make landfall in the U.S. in 12 years, settled over the Houston area and dumped as much as 40 inches of rain on some spots over the next four days. The deluge brought the Buffalo Bayou to record levels, shattering previous flood crests by several feet.

Reservoirs designed to help control flooding of the bayou filled to capacity, and despite attempts to initiate controlled releases, surrounding neighborhoods, including Lakeside’s, were soon swamped.

“We had very little warning of the disaster we were about to experience,” said Craig Meyer, CEC, who has been Lakeside’s Executive Chef for over 12 years, when he first reported to C&RB nearly a month later about what had hit the club. The damage, Meyer said, included four feet of water that destroyed Lakeside’s 68,000-sq. ft. clubhouse and “everything inside of it.”

“We are still digging out and trying to navigate through rebuilding,” Meyer added then. “There are plenty of evolving situations as we try to get back online. These are uncharted waters for all of us.”

By early December, however, Schaner and Meyer were able to report that while Lakeside’s membership of 700 and its management team were still facing a long and unprecedented voyage, the mood of the club was buoyant, and welcomed sights were in view on the horizon.

“This has certainly not been a case where the typical steps [for disaster planning and recovery] apply,” Schaner says now. “Once something like this happens, all of the ‘what ifs,’ including the worst-case ones, come to mind. There are a lot of sensitivities at play, including with many employees who have been displaced from their own homes and don’t know what to do, because the club is closed and they are totally removed from any sort of normal routine.

“As a club manager, you have to go into starting [a recovery effort] from something this catastrophic with the understanding that you still have a job to do,” he continues. “And a big part of our job is to keep calm and to be able to keep people thinking rationally, and to give them some sort of plan.”

Lakeside also had the good fortune of having a Board President in place with an ideal makeup for assessing, and reacting to, such a critical situation. Robert Mueller, a West Point graduate who flew helicopters in the Desert Storm Gulf War, was about to end his one-year term when Harvey hit, but didn’t hesitate to step up for another year. “He sees, and relishes, [the situation] as a huge opportunity to really do something special for the club,” Schaner says.

Long-term, that opportunity is seen as one of forming plans and securing membership approval for a new clubhouse and other facilities. At the same time, Schaner and his team were immediately directed to find ways to return club activity at Lakeside to some semblance of normalcy as quickly as possible.

Lakeside CC’s Executive Chef, Craig Meyer, tapped a variety of sources for equipment that helped him put together a tented and mobile outdoor kitchen setup that could be used to hold events on the property—and even prepare Thanksgiving to-go orders—as the club sought to return to some semblance of normalcy as quickly as possible.

That did involve some short-term pain, in the form of having to reduce staff so the club could operate on a break-even basis during its recovery period. But in addition to assistance that was extended to many Lakeside employees through member contributions (a hardship fund of $200,000 was raised), as well as vendor donations of food, water and other supplies, Schaner and his staff also worked their networks to help find new opportunities for those who had to be laid off.

“Some [employees] took the opportunity to retire, and some left the area,” Schaner reports. “But we were fortunate that a brand-new hotel was opening up in the city, and between reaching out to it and other clubs and local hospitality entities, anyone who wanted a job was able to find one, and in some cases for better opportunities.”

At the same time, routines were quickly reestablished for remaining staff—and reasons were quickly revived for members to return—by finding inventive ways to get the club active again. For Meyer, this meant pulling together cooking trailers, smokers and other custom-modified equipment to create a tented, mobile outdoor kitchen setup that could be as versatile and productive as possible.

“All of my [clubhouse kitchen] equipment was demolished,” Meyer says. “But I had taken a trailer that I use for outdoor events and parked it at the highest point [of the Lakeside property] ahead of [the storm]. As we geared up to reopen, I called on some other vendors to help me get other equipment, so we could start having tailgate parties and other events on the property, and even still cook Thanksgiving to-go orders.” The club—and all of Houston—also got a shot in the arm when the Astros made their run to win the World Series, and in the process created more reasons for members to gather on the property.

A constant and consistent communications effort
coordinated remotely by Marketing Director Laura Hill kept Eagle Creek G&CC members and residents properly informed about the extent of Hurricane Irma’s damage through video messages that included footage from drone flyovers of the property.

“E-mails and texts [to members] only go so far to let them know you’re back and open for business,” Meyer notes. “You have to find ways to create places they can come back to and start using the club the way they did before.”

While even the most optimistic forecast doesn’t expect Lakeside to have a fully functioning clubhouse again for at least another year, the club has already seen golf rounds return to 80% of normal play less than four months after Harvey, and it was expecting to open a refurbished fitness facility right after the new year.

Additionally, Schaner reported, people have still been writing substantial checks to become Lakeside members, as their turns to move off, or be added to, a still-strong waiting list has come up. “It all says a lot about the character of the club and the people who are part of it,” he says. “You never know about the strength of your team until you’re part of a situation like this. But when you can see that there is a future and that you’re moving forward with a plan, it makes all the emotion, and sleepless nights, and times when you question what you’re doing, go away.”

Finding Ways to Help

True to the service-oriented nature of the club business, properties that were fortunate to be spared from 2017’s wide-ranging rash of natural disasters didn’t hesitate to step up and find ways to help those that were not. In addition to numerous fundraising and assistance efforts launched by individual clubs and their memberships, as well as by regional and national organizations for club professionals and industry suppliers, many properties arranged special events to help with relief efforts for affected communities.

“Play Hooky for Harvey” attracted over 400 golfers drawn by the rare opportunity to play the course at Miramont CC and raised over $150,000 in relief funds.

At Miramont Country Club in Bryan, Texas, some 100 miles from Houston, General Manager Aaron Dawson approached his club owner, Donald Adam, shortly after Hurricane Harvey hit with the idea of opening Miramont’s golf course to the public for a relief effort. Adam enthusiastically embraced the idea and pledged that his company would match the funds raised through players’ fees. Over a four-day period, over 400 golfers participated in the “Play Hooky for Harvey” event and over $150,000 was raised. “It was a very rewarding experience for everyone involved—myself and our staff, as well as those who were able to experience Miramont for the first and perhaps only time,” Dawson says.

Florida: Keeping Calm Amid Hurricane Hysteria

Among all of the properties that felt Mother Nature’s wrath in 2017, it would be understandable if the staff at Eagle Creek Golf & Country Club in Naples, Fla., felt justified in claiming they had been treated the most unfairly. On September 10, as the club was nearing completion of a major golf course renovation and excitedly planning its reopening in mid-October, Hurricane Irma decided to give Eagle Creek the distinction of being the first member-owned club that it “visited” after making landfall with near-Category-4-force (110-plus mph) winds. And as its parting gift, Irma not only undid much of the renovation work that had been done to date, it also scattered 1,500 new-fallen trees, many the size of two-car garages.

But Eagle Creek Superintendent Jimmy Alston says that having the course renovation underway actually made dealing with Irma’s destruction easier. “We had a contractor on site for the renovation, and with their expertise and equipment, we were able to go immediately from golf course construction to major disaster cleanup and recovery mode,” Alston says.

Alston’s glass-half-full perspective on how the situation presented itself typified the attitude exemplified throughout the ordeal by everyone on the Eagle Creek staff, which is led by General Manager Don Madalinski. Most of the club’s department heads, Madalinski notes, have been at the property for more than 10 years, so Irma was not their first hurricane rodeo. As would be expected, the Eagle Creek management team is well-versed in a comprehensive preparedness plan that is updated as each new season approaches. And whenever it becomes evident that a new weather event is likely to have an impact on the Eagle Creek property, that becomes an agenda item in the daily meetings that Madalinski holds unfailingly with his department heads.

“If a storm’s coming, we bounce ideas off each other,” Madalinski says. “Weather is a huge part of our daily lives, so we refer to our plan and map out how [a storm] could affect each department and what specific precautions we might want to take, based on what’s being predicted.”

The approach of a new storm also kicks Eagle Creek’s proven communications process into action, with Madalinski and Alston working with the club’s Marketing Director, Laura Hill, to take steps to prepare YouTube videos that will be a principle and regular form of management’s communication with the club’s nearly 500 members. While many of those members will be on the property, many others may be as far away as Canada—but all know that they will be kept well-informed through e-mail, text alerts and social media, as well as video, on exactly what’s transpiring at the property.

Securing trucked-in water and generators for pump stations helped Superintendent Dustin McIntosh keep the Fountaingrove Golf & Athletic Club golf course, which had just aerified its greens, irrigated in the aftermath of wildfires that scorched much of the property. The club served as a “comfort zone” for the affected Santa Rosa, Calif., community, opening its facility to the public.

That proved to be especially important as Irma bore down on Florida and the national and international media trolled for ratings by describing potential storm surges that, if you were to believe some reports, threatened to converge from both the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico and turn the state into North America’s newest and largest great lake. Even while his experience reminded him that most of the frenzied news reports were not likely to prove to be reality TV, Madalinski knew it remained important to prepare for the worst and not be afraid to err on the side of caution.

As a result, he recorded two YouTube videos in the days ahead of the storm that calmly advised anyone who had concerns, or lived in especially vulnerable properties, to evacuate before leaving would become much more difficult. “Our clubhouse is not a hurricane shelter,” he reminded Eagle Creek’s members in one video. “If you’re uncomfortable, you should take the safe view and get moving now, versus thinking you can wait it out.”

With small children of her own, Hill did leave the area to be with family in Chicago, while Madalinski and Alston stayed behind. But through a pre-established communications chain that includes other staff and Board members, with contingencies in place to keep the chain moving should anyone who is on it become unreachable or lose power or phone/Internet connections, Hill continued to coordinate and make a steady stream of messages available to the club community throughout Irma’s approach and aftermath.”The system worked,” she says. “And it really helped keep everyone from panicking about what they were hearing on the news.”

As it turned out, the Eagle Creek property didn’t see even a drop of what had been reported as a possible three- to five-foot storm surge for its location. But it did get 25 inches of rain in a five-hour period, along with the many mementos that Irma left throughout the property. And as soon as it was safe to return, Madalinski and Alston were back on site to provide video tours of the damage and describe the plans for dealing with it (which included still getting the course open only a month behind the original renovation schedule).

Fountaingrove Golf & Athletic Club, Santa Rosa, Calif.

“You can’t panic and get caught up in the hype and drama,” Madalinski says. “And while all the talk about the storm surge was very frightening, you still have to keep your focus and remember that the most important things you do will be after the storm, not before.”

In the case of Irma and the disruption it caused through power outages and flooding, Madalinski notes, that meant finding a way to help “keep [employees’] home lives stable” by getting cash from a bank to help meet payroll after checks were unable to be delivered, as well as securing fuel, water, ice and other supplies.

Generators from the clubhouse and maintenance facilities were also loaned to some workers. “They were back here working all day to help get the club up and running again, and it was hotter than hell,” Alston says. “The least we could do was help them have some comfort when they got home.”

California: Where There’s Smoke

According to The Sacramento Bee, the 2017 California wildfire season was the most destructive on record—and the Bee’s report did not include the devastation from blazes that broke out in Southern California in December.

A total of nearly 8,800 fires burned in the state throughout the year prior to the Southern California outbreak. From October 8 through the end of that month, 250 wildfires burned in Northern California’s wine country, ultimately touching on 245,000 acres, destroying 8,900 buildings, and killing 44 people. Total insurance claims related to those fires had reached $9.4 billion, and that figure was still climbing like the walls of flames that became all too familiar throughout the state and on reports broadcast to the world.

“Our job is to keep calm and to be able to keep people thinking rationally, and to give them some sort of plan.”
—Craig Schaner, General Manager, Lakeside CC

The most destructive of the Northern California wildfires was the Tubbs Fire, which burned through parts of Napa, Sonoma and Lake counties. The blaze caused plenty of damage to the region’s golf industry, with Fountaingrove Golf & Athletic Club in Santa Rosa, Calif., suffering a complete loss of its clubhouse, golf maintenance facility and gate house. More than 400 trees, irrigation clocks and golf course signage were also lost, says Golf Course Superintendent Dustin McIntosh.

“There were no preparations made,” McIntosh says. “Even the fire departments were unprepared for this.”

McIntosh became aware of the fire at 5 a.m., finding many missed calls on his cell phone. “I panicked and ran out of the house and drove up through the fire to my shop, to try to save Dixie, our full-blooded Catahoula dog,” McIntosh says. “I reckon I was at least three hours too late, as the whole thing was on the ground when I arrived. After taking in the scene and confirming the dog wasn’t alive, I returned home.

“The whole thing feels like it was a bad dream,” he adds. “Very surreal.”

As Superintendent, McIntosh’s first steps involved securing water for the golf course, for which the greens had been aerified a week earlier. A member proved “instrumental” in helping McIntosh truck out water and soak down the greens, and another local golf course loaned equipment. McIntosh also secured generators to supply power to the pump stations.

“We were very lucky in that our pump stations are in underground vaults and were unaffected,” he says. “Once the pump stations were online, we then had to prep the rest of the irrigation system.”

Fortunately, the property’s athletic facility was intact with only minor smoke damage, although the landscaping surrounding the building was lost. Fire debris also effectively contaminated the golf course bunkers and water features, to the extent that they will be renovated, McIntosh says.

“You can’t panic and get caught up in the hype and drama. And the most important things will be what you do after a storm, not before.”
—Don Madalinski,
General Manager, Eagle Creek G&CC

As staff addressed compromised trees and tended to damaged equipment, they were also putting out smoldering tree stumps and burning landscaping.

“The crew’s safety was always a huge concern through this time, and some elected not to come into the area for different reasons,” McIntosh says.

Given the circumstances, McIntosh says recovery is going well. The athletic facility was transitioned into a “comfort zone” for the community after the fire, offering the public use of its restrooms and showers, along with snacks and water. The facility then opened for its regular hours on November 8, and Fountaingrove even hosted a golf equipment demo day on November 10.

Despite the hardships, and the loss of a much-loved and missed dog, McIntosh says there are plenty of teaching moments to be found in the rubble.
“The sooner you can get things ordered—such as temporary buildings—the faster you can get going again,” he advises. “It’s also very important to make good relationships with people involved with the government who can help with anything from getting through checkpoints to getting permits and information.”

Silverado Resort in Napa, Calif., which had completed its hosting duties for the Safeway Open tournament just hours before the Tubbs Fire broke out, evacuated guests and staff on October 8 as well.

Tournament Director Jeff Sanders smelled the smoke from the wildfire coming down the hillside above the 5th hole, near his room. “We got out of there, thank God,” Sanders told the San Francisco Chronicle on October 9. “It was quick. It happened fast. The wind was blowing 40 mph, blowing the fire down the top of the hill on No. 5. It didn’t take long for the embers to cause problems.”

“Throughout the course of that night, we put out approximately 30 small fires around the property,” General Manager John Evans told the Napa Valley Register. “The team was running on instincts, adrenaline, but in a very calm manner throughout. There was just so much to take care of, you really couldn’t get rattled about it.

“You had to just keep prioritizing and working on those fires that you thought were going to endanger the mansion or the assets of the resort,” Evans added.

Staff used fire extinguishers, shovels, a garden hose, and a sprinkler system set up on top of the property’s mansion. “We elected to start watering the area down real heavily,” said Evans. “The area behind the mansion had started to burn significantly. We put it out four different times over an eight-hour period. The air was filled with embers. It was igniting fires throughout the area.”

The local fire department provided assistance to the resort, which had smoke damage but re-opened to guests on October 25. The par-4 17th hole on the North Course has been turned into a temporary par-3 hole for safety purposes, and the resort will replace a bridge on the North Course that burned in the fires.“It’s all really due to the associates who worked exceptionally hard to put this resort back into shape to welcome guests again,” Evans said.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *