Thinking ahead to develop a formalized weather management plan can help superintendents prepare for severe weather events and, maybe, save lives.

By Stan Awtrey

Read this story in GCM's digital edition

May 2013 Brainstorm: lightning

The appearance of rotating storm clouds or bolts of lightning
would not be the first signals for golfers and course workers
to retreat to shelter at a facility with advanced safety equipment
and a formalized weather management plan.
Photo courtesy of Thor Guard

A comprehensive weather management plan should define the roles of management and staff so the threat of severe weather is recognized as soon as possible, and everyone knows the actions they’re going to take in the precious few minutes before a storm hits.

Kirk Youngblood didn’t know what to expect when he arrived at Twin Hills Golf and Country Club the morning after an EF5 tornado leveled much of Joplin, Mo., in May 2011.

The storm, which wound up taking 161 lives and destroying one-third of Joplin, skirted within three blocks of Twin Hills. The course lost only three trees and was without power for a few weeks. Fortunately, other courses in the Joplin area also were spared major damage.

Youngblood, the GCSAA Class A superintendent at Twin Hills, and his fellow superintendents know they caught a break. Three years earlier, Youngblood had been part of a work crew that hunkered down in the club’s maintenance building when straight-line winds came through at 7 a.m. Those blasts knocked down a TV tower and 40 mature trees.

"That wind just snapped those trees," the 20-year GCSAA member recalls. "There wasn’t anything you could do but stand there and watch it."

May 2013 Brainstorm: detection

Bob Dugan (left), the president of Thor Guard, a manufacturer of 
lightning protection and warning systems for golf courses, and Wayne Kappauf, CGCS at Island CC on Marco Island, Fla., review a
newly installed sensor for the club’s on-course lightning alert system.
Photo courtesy of Thor Guard

Most superintendents can speak from personal experience about brushes with bad weather. Perhaps it’s watching a nearby tree being felled by lightning or huddling in the basement of the maintenance building to seek shelter from a tornado.

Living through those kinds of life-threatening events has taught many the value of a formalized weather management plan to help ensure the safety of their crews and their golfers, not to mention protecting their property and equipment.

"Whether it’s a hurricane or a tornado, you can prepare for it," says Bob Randquist, CGCS, at Boca Rio Golf Club in Boca Raton, Fla.

Setting the ground rules

A comprehensive weather management plan should define the roles of management and staff so the threat of severe weather is recognized as soon as possible, and everyone knows the actions they’re going to take in the precious few minutes before a storm hits.

"A carefully designed and effectively executed plan can lessen the potential for injury,” says Bob Dugan, president of Thor Guard, which makes lightning prediction and warning systems for golf courses and other businesses. “In some cases the plan will mean the difference between life and death."

Most courses have some sort of plan for severe weather. The complexity and thoroughness of the plan often correlates with the size of the facility and its staff. A network of courses, such as those operated by the TPC network, will have more in-depth, comprehensive plans, while smaller facilities often operate with a simpler plan. Regardless of its sophistication, a plan is critical, Dugan says.

"A clear understanding of roles and responsibilities helps to eliminate what can be chaotic moments marked by indecision when severe weather threatens," Dugan says.

Superintendents can take different paths to establishing that clear understanding. For example, Shelia Finney, the GCSAA Class A superintendent at Gaylord Springs Golf Links in Franklin, Tenn., and a 24-year association member, is fortunate to have an extensive reference source, with information on how to handle all sorts of emergencies. She also conducts tornado preparedness drills. Mike Posey, now the Class A superintendent at Hoover (Ala.) Country Club, referred to an employee handbook for guidance when he was superintendent at Pine Tree Country Club in Birmingham, Ala. And Mark Esoda, CGCS at the Atlanta Country Club in Marietta, Ga., and a 26-year member of GCSAA, has a safety meeting each year with his staff.

Identifying the threat

One of the first steps that should be outlined in any plan is recognizing the threat of severe weather. Traditionally, courses have scanned radar on a computer in the maintenance building or pro shop. The National Weather Service, The Weather Channel and local television stations are other sources of information. But the information broadcast by these sources can lag the arrival of severe weather by several minutes.

More advanced lightning prediction systems, which monitor the atmosphere’s electrostatic field, have the advantage of being able to issue a warning before lightning is detected or present in a specific area.

Once a threat has been identified, there must be a way to notify crew members and golfers about dangerous conditions so they can seek shelter. This can be challenging for superintendents, who often have crews spread out across the facility, some of them using loud machinery.

Lightning detection is especially important for Todd Bohn, the Class A superintendent at Wolf Creek Golf Links in Olathe, Kan. He tells his crew to return to home base as soon as the first bolt is spotted. "Lightning is something you don’t want to mess around with," he says.

The same holds true for one of Bohn’s neighbors in the Kansas City area, Woody Moriarty, the Class A superintendent at Blue Hills Country Club in Kansas City, Mo. "It can blow in on you pretty quick," says the 21-year member of GCSAA. "Our guys are aware that they need to get back, and if there’s a young guy who maybe doesn’t understand, they make sure they’re safe."

Boca Rio has a lightning detection system in the clubhouse that triggers a series of five sirens around the golf course when a strike occurs within six miles of the club, Randquist says of the system at his facility. In addition to the sirens, there are two highly visible areas around the course with strobe lights that flash a warning that tells crew members to cease work and come in.

At the Atlanta Country Club, everyone on Esoda’s team has a radio and receives a call. At Gaylord Springs, the supervisors are notified and they begin to retrieve the crew. Finney is able to get her crew back to safety within five minutes. Posey will send out carts to retrieve his workers and bring them to safety.

Speaking for most superintendents, Moriarty says, "We don’t leave anybody out there."

Safety first

If an error is made, most superintendents make it on the side of safety. It’s better to have crews come in early rather than late and risk injury. “It’s a personal call,” Youngblood says. "But if it gets too close, we tell them to come in."

"The rough can be mowed tomorrow," says Posey, an 11-year GCSAA member. "We work in the rain, but when it’s lightning, they come back to the shop. My guys know if they hear thunder or see lightning, don’t even think about it; come back to the shop."

In most instances, crews are told to meet at a predetermined safe place so supervisors can make sure everyone is safe and accounted for. At Gaylord Springs, that’s the basement of the clubhouse during a tornado. When Posey was at Pine Tree, that was in a basement of the pool house. Esoda makes sure his team is back at the maintenance building or at one of the established shelters on the course, while Wolf Creek has a safe place in the basement of the cart storage facility.

If conditions look particularly ominous, Posey won’t even send his crews back into the field. "If we know it’s going to storm in the afternoon, it’s not worth it to get someone stuck. That’s better than risking someone’s life."

Posey still remembers what happened on April 27, 2011, when a mile-wide tornado brought destruction to Tuscaloosa, Ala. While Posey’s course was 60 miles to the east and didn’t receive a direct hit, his crews were cleaning up debris for days.

Wolf Creek, located in the suburbs of Kansas City, didn’t have trouble with the same tornadoes that plagued facilities in southwest Missouri. But Bohn doesn’t take any chances with his crew. "When the storm comes within 15-20 miles," the 13-year GCSAA member says,"it’s our standard procedure to bring our guys in and get them into shelter."

Boca Rio isn’t often threatened by tornadoes, but crews there must be careful of the lightning that often strikes in South Florida. Randquist has equipment that monitors the proximity of the strikes and takes no chances with his crew. "They’re not allowed to go back out under any circumstances until at least 13-14 minutes after the all clear is given," says the former president of GCSAA and a 36-year member of the association.

That’s a smart move, according to Greg Quinn, chief meteorologist at Thor Guard.

"Most people think it’s safe to go back on the course once a storm has cleared the area," he says. "But studies have shown that 60 percent of lightning victims are struck under blue skies after a storm has passed."

South Florida is an area that also must beware of hurricanes, although the precautions there are different from those for tornadoes and severe thunderstorms. Because the arrival of a hurricane is forecast days in advance and monitored closely, Randquist has his crews taking steps to ensure the safety of the property and equipment. They bring benches, ball washers and flags inside to prevent them from becoming possible projectiles in the high winds. They also cover windows with plywood. Crews are sent home at least 24 hours before the hurricane is expected to hit so they have plenty of time to secure their own dwellings and ensure the safety of their families.

Superintendents agree that regardless of the severe weather obstacles, the safety of the crew comes first. "You have to make safety your first priority," Esoda says.

That’s why a severe weather management plan is as critical to superintendents as the best greens mowers.

Stan Awtrey is a free-lance writer who lives in Atlanta.