Feature Article - January 2019
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Plan to Recover

Disaster Recovery for Parks & Recreation Areas

By Deborah L. Vence


In early November 2018, hot, dry winds brought about devastating wildfires to parts of Northern and Southern California. The fires quickly spread, claiming many lives, destroying a large number of homes and other structures, and resulting in billions of dollars in damages. The fires took more than two weeks to be contained.

The California wildfires represent just one example of what Mother Nature can do in a short amount of time. Every year, the effects of natural disasters (hurricanes, wildfires, floods, tornadoes) in the United States seem to be worse than the year before, wreaking havoc on communities and businesses, and often resulting in irreparable damage.

Thus, the increasing severity and destruction of natural disasters has put the discussion of climate change front and center in recent years. Experts on this topic have talked about the potential for more catastrophic weather events to occur.

In fact, a new federal climate assessment for the United States released in November highlights the effects, risks and adaptations to climate change. The assessment—Volume II of the Fourth National Climate Assessment (NCA4)—which was released by the U.S. Global Change Research Program (USGCRP), found that "climate change is affecting the natural environment, agriculture, energy production and use, land and water resources, transportation, and human health and welfare across the U.S. and its territories."

A key finding in the report indicated that human health and safety, quality of life, and the rate of economic growth in communities across the country increasingly are vulnerable to the impact of climate change. And, "The cascading impacts of climate change threaten the natural, built and social systems we rely on, both within and beyond the nation's borders."

Natural disasters can have effects on tourism and recreation as well. The assessment pointed out that "Outdoor recreation, tourist economies, and quality of life are reliant on benefits provided by our natural environment that will be degraded by the impacts of climate change in many ways. Climate change poses risks to seasonal and outdoor economies in communities across the United States, including impacts on economies centered around coral reef-based recreation, winter recreation and inland water-based recreation."

And, "In turn, this affects the well-being of the people who make their living supporting these economies, including rural, coastal and Indigenous communities. Projected increases in wildfire smoke events are expected to impair outdoor recreational activities and visibility in wilderness areas," according to the report.

Unfortunately, over the past several years, parks and recreation areas have had to endure the impact of natural disasters, with some park areas having to start over completely and rebuild from the ground up. That's why having a plan in place before a natural disaster strikes can help ease the burden of the recovery efforts.

Create a Plan

In Houston, Texas, for example, the parks and recreation department follows the city's Hurricane and Disaster Emergency Management Plan, which identifies and dictates the department's actions in the case of natural disasters.

"This document details how the city and its specific departments will respond to emergencies, including natural disasters," said Steve Wright, director of the Houston Parks and Recreation Department. "In general, the objective of the plan is to protect people, protect property, protect the continuity of operations and provide for recovery."

Cheryl Michelet, director of communications at BREC—Parks and Recreation in East Baton Rouge Parish, an agency that operates public park and recreation facilities and programs throughout East Baton Rouge Parish, La., said, "Unfortunately, BREC has a lot of experience with natural disasters, especially hurricanes and floods." (BREC is a political subdivision of the state of Louisiana. It was created in 1946 to develop, maintain and operate public park and recreational facilities.)

"Two years ago, when what started as a summer rainstorm lasted for days and dumped 7 trillion gallons of water on the area, the agency sprung into action to serve the community," she said.

"We had agreements in place to operate short-term shelters, host emergency responders, temporarily house storm debris and shut down the agency," Michelet said. "In addition, we needed a disaster pay policy, policies to enable us to assist impacted employees and multiple methods to keep staff members informed, while also assuring their safety. We now have an updated disaster plan that addresses these issues."

She also stressed that each department should understand their role, while also remaining flexible to cover when others aren't available and ensure that their staff knows what to do when disaster strikes.

Though having a plan in place is a good idea, "Generally, there is not much that can be done in preparation of the natural disaster for your parks and playgrounds," suggested Matt Miller, director of marketing and corporate communication at a park, playground and recreation equipment supplier that has offices in New Jersey and California.

"Once the natural disaster moves away from the area," he added, "that is the time to begin evaluating any potential damaged equipment."