When Disaster Strikes

Preparation Is Key to Disaster Recovery for Parks


When disasters such as tornadoes, hurricanes, floods or wildfires strike, it can wreak havoc on parks, sports and recreation sites.

The key to surviving and recovering from these overwhelming weather events, said experts at the National Recreation and Park Association (NRPA), and KaBoom!, a national non-profit organization that creates play spaces for communities in need, is to have a plan in place to prepare for such events if they occur.

"The NRPA has always encouraged public park and recreation agencies to be prepared in a thoughtful, responsible, and proactive way for extreme events," said Rich Dolesh, vice president of strategic initiatives at NRPA, which is based in Ashburn, Va. Dolesh has, over the past few years, researched and interviewed park and recreation officials in areas that had to face what he called "shock" events: for example, Hurricane Harvey in Houston, the flooding in East Baton Rouge, La., and the wildfires in California.

"How resilient are these park and recreation areas, particularly in response to extreme storms, hurricanes or tornadoes?" Dolesh asked. "That's what I looked into. These events are difficult to deal with and really challenge park and recreation agencies in how to respond, how to prepare."

The NRPA accredits park and recreation agencies across the country, and one of the required elements is an emergency preparedness plan. "In years gone by," Dolesh said, "I think park and recreation agencies often, if they were in localities where they didn't have extreme weather regularly, didn't give much forethought to emergency preparedness."

But if you talk to people in Florida, Dolesh continued, they are very well prepared for the next hurricane or the next tropical storm. They work hand-in-glove with their counterparts in public works and with transportation departments. They often have a unified command or an incident command structure. They respond in a way that really shows that they know what they are doing, they are prepared for it, and they know how to come back from it.

The key to surviving and recovering from these overwhelming weather events is to have a plan in place to prepare for such events if they occur.

Agencies that don't have those kinds of regular shock events are less well prepared, Dolesh contends. "They haven't thought out what they are going to do when disaster strikes. In my research, I have been struck by the fact that many times, in the midst of a storm or the lead-up to it, agencies were caught unaware of how they should have been prepared, or how difficult it was for employees to respond. Because in those big storms, many agencies lost communications and couldn't even get in touch with their employees. Or alternatively, their employees were affected because they lived in these communities hit hard by the weather event. Some were in the middle of the storm, fires or hurricanes."

When Dolesh looked at all the extreme weather events around the country that park and recreation agencies were affected by in the past year or two, "it was astonishing," he said. "There is no place in the country that didn't have some sort of extreme event affect them, whether it was flood, hailstorms or extreme drought. The range of what can go wrong and what can go bad is almost unlimited. I contend that park and recreation agencies are on the line of first response. The facilities they own, the people that they serve … they have to be out there taking care of business and responding in the face of adversity."

Preparation: The First Step

Some key things for a recreation center or park staff to do in preparation for expected extreme weather, "is take a quick scan of the area to see if there are any loose parts out there, things that might not be bolted down. Look for loose toys on the ground," said David Flanigan, director, play products, KaBoom!, based in Washington, D.C. "You need to make sure that everything is put away and secured so that if a hurricane does come through those objects don't become projectiles."


Another critical element to preparedness, Flanigan suggested, is looking at your shade areas. "With artificial shade being put on more and more play spaces, have a plan in place so that when there is an impending severe storm or hurricane, there is an existing protocol for taking it down. Shade can withstand high winds, but oftentimes what happens is debris will tear the fabric and render it unstable. Being able to make sure you have a plan ahead of time will establish how soon before the storm approaches you should take that shade fabric down."

Swings, if they are secure, can flap in the wind and most likely won't come off, but depending on the severity of the weather—in a category 5 hurricane, for example—consider securing them. The challenge is that there are so many other things that have to be done to prepare for an impending hurricane. "If you are prioritizing," Flanigan said, "shade is number one and second is to clear away any loose parts that are around."


In play areas near where there are wildfires, make sure there is no debris near the play space, Flanigan said, "but I was just in touch with someone in Sonoma County (Calif.) where all the houses in one area were totally destroyed except a playground and I don't know if it was pure luck or if it was far enough away from the flames."

The staff should understand the plan, which includes evacuation. "If there are kids in the area, make sure they are safe and that there is a plan for where they are going to go. If you have a recreation facility that can act as a shelter, you want to have things for the kids to do during or right after the disaster," Flanigan said. "We've worked with the folks at Save the Children. They create child-friendly spaces and they will set up shop where shelters are and bring in play opportunities for kids, so that when the recovery process does begin, the kids have an opportunity to play and that mitigates some of the toxic levels of stress that the kids in those situations are experiencing."

The bottom line is to think about preparation, said both Flanigan and Dolesh. Certain things you can predict, like hurricanes. Tornadoes are always a challenge, because they happen so quickly. Fires are also hard to predict.

"I think the biggest trend that I've seen around the country is the level of preparedness at park and recreation agencies," said Dolesh "They are prepared for these kinds of severe events. Large public agencies oftentimes have to be prepared, but many agencies have gone a step beyond that … they are baking it into their DNA. They are prepared, prepositioned, they're ready, and they know how to respond."

Even if a parks and recreation department doesn't have accreditation as a required element of agency certification, Dolesh said, "I think more and more agencies are getting serious about being prepared for extreme events." (Go to www.nrpa.org/certification/accreditation/capra/ for more information on accreditation.)

Still, he said, it is hard to do training for events that overwhelm peoples' resources and physical capability. "In talking to the folks in Houston, I was struck that with Hurricane Harvey it absolutely overwhelmed people's capabilities. Getting 50 or 60 inches of rain is beyond your level of understanding of what it does. The devastation was extreme. They simply lost parks. They were obliterated."

A Deluge in Baton Rouge

Having an agency preparedness plan helped the Recreation and Park Commission for the Parish of East Baton Rouge (BREC) survive and recover from record flooding. They had just gone through updating their emergency preparedness plan and it was extremely valuable to them when those severe storms hit, said Cheryl Michelet, communications director, BREC.


In August 2016, historic floods devastated parts of south Louisiana after a slow-moving system dumped more than 20 inches of rain in parts of East Baton Rouge and nearby parishes in a three-day span.

In just two days 21.86 inches of rain fell in Livingston, La., according to National Weather Service gauges. That topped the threshold of 20.7 inches for a 1,000-year rainfall event for that period. But other gauges measured more than 31 inches in Watson, La. That staggering total left many climate scientists and meteorologists scratching their heads.

"It started as a really heavy rainstorm on a Friday," Michelet recalled. "By noon of that day you could tell it was going to be really bad. The rain wasn't stopping, and we were already seeing street flooding and the weather folks were getting nervous. That night we posted on social media our first pictures of facilities we checked on. We had folks at the zoo stay overnight until the water went down to make sure the animals were safe. That really resonated with the community."

BREC was asked to open shelters. "Our facilities are really only good for short-term shelters," Michelet said. "We operate five of those, and I got a call that weekend from someone operating one of them saying, 'We have all these kids here, and we don't have anything for them to do.' We were able to bring them coloring books, jump ropes and anything we could grab."


The next day a handful of employees got into work and Michelet started thinking about BREC on the Geaux ("That's our Louisiana way of saying go," she said,) a recreation program. "I called the governor's office, Red Cross, and people I know to get things going and the next day, we had BREC on the Geaux in shelters. It's a mobile recreation unit. We have two. We divided them up and had them visit shelters until those shelters were closed and people could get back home and schools reopened. This made such a difference, because the kids had some healthy activity, something fun to do to take their minds off what was going on, and I think it was just about as important for the adults. You don't want to break down when your kids are right there, so you have some time to think and plan and cry if you need to."

A few days later BREC opened emergency camps. There were still kids who weren't in a shelter, "their houses may or may not have flooded but their parents were working to repair their houses or friend's houses and so we opened camps all around the parish until schools reopened," Michelet said. "The other things that we did were offering space for first responders. We housed thousands of tons of debris because we just couldn't get it to a landfill quick enough … to help speed up that recovery."

Use Social Media, Connect With Local Media

Using social media "is an emerging trend," added Dolesh. "Parks and recreation agencies that have solid communications capability are inherently prepared to use social media, and it can be an effective form of communication."


More and more, the public turns to social media for news and events. It can provide real-time information, which is why it is so valuable. "That first day," Michelet, of BREC said, "we had people fanned out inspecting parks and facilities, seeing what was safe to use, what was too damaged. For example, we had a park that had eight feet of water and you could only get to it by boat when the water was there, but once the water receded it was still dangerous because of the electrical danger posed by downed wires."

Each day BREC would do a news release that told you how many kids were served, where the emergency camps were, and which parks were open and safe to go to. BREC was communicating quickly and constantly to tell people what was going on, but then also quickly offering solutions to problems people were facing at the time.

Establish a relationship with the local news media, Michelet added. "They can get word out, sometimes when you can't. They are looking for stories. You can provide it for them."

In East Baton Rouge, people were posting on social media that the Parish's flooded parks had saved their neighborhoods because they were retaining water like they were meant to and people could get into their neighborhoods.


David Barth, of Barth Associates, Gainesville, Fla., is a landscape architect, certified planner, and Certified Parks and Recreation Professional (CPRP). Barth noted that parks can help protect communities from flooding. "Can I treat the entire park like one enormous stormwater basin?" he said. "So when there is a major storm event the park actually acts as a holding basin for floodwater for a day or two before it gets released, which helps minimize flooding. The park can become a stormwater treatment facility."

That was what happened to an extent in East Baton Rouge, Michelet said. "And our residents appreciated it."

Starting Over

"What do you do in the aftermath? You pick up the pieces," Dolesh said. "Another thing that I have found striking is that park and recreation agencies were focused on people and kept that as their primary focus. Not only how the public was affected and needed help, but also their own employees and how they were able to cope and to respond during and after the weather event."

Organizations like KaBoom! are concerned with disaster relief and recovery. "After Hurricane Katrina," said Flanigan, "KaBoom! committed to build 100 playgrounds in the communities impacted by hurricane Katrina. We far exceeded that number, and we're on play space number 194. What we found is that besides all of the things that families need after disasters: shelter, water, food, all of that is important of course. But what families really needed was to have a sense of community and a place to heal, and so what we were able to do was to go down to Mississippi in one of the hardest-hit areas and bring the community together to build playgrounds. More than 600 people came out, and for a lot of folks who were there, this was the first positive thing that came after the storm. It really helped to catalyze a healing process for that community."

Building those play spaces was also part of their psychological recovery from the disaster, Flanigan continued. "We heard stories about kids who were so traumatized that they were talking about committing suicide. So, being able to have a play opportunity where kids have an outlet and to be able to just be kids helped the healing and resiliency that kids need to get through those kinds of traumas."

This year, after Hurricane Harvey, KaBoom! went to the community partners they work with, and funders such as Blue Cross Blue Shield Texas, to understand the scope of the disaster, and the needs of the community.

"We also were communicating with some partner organizations, such as Save the Children and Child Care Aware," Flanigan said. "They work with all the early childhood centers across the impacted area and understand their needs. They ask what the status is of your facility. Your play space. Through that they understood what the scope of the need was. We then built a playground in Houston at a site where it wasn't directly damaged, but the community that goes to that school were impacted. That was a positive experience for the people who were participating in the community build. And we will be continuing with other builds, another effort to bring play and a positive experience for communities that were impacted by the floods."