Supplement Feature - April 2018
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When Disaster Strikes

Preparation Is Key to Disaster Recovery for Parks

By Rick Dandes

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."