Dealing With Disaster

Disaster Plans Are Vital for Recreation, Sports & Fitness Facilities

By Deborah L. Vence

Hurricane Katrina slammed the city of New Orleans in August 2005 with disastrous effects—leaving more than 1,800 people dead and ultimately causing billions of dollars in damage. In 2010, the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico became the worst in U.S. history, threatening the future of wildlife there, as well as the economic prospects for tourism and fishing. And, earlier this year, an F5 tornado flattened Joplin, Mo., leaving more than 100 people dead and many of the city's residents homeless.

The magnitude of these disasters is overwhelming to say the least—affecting people, animals and local economies. But, what do catastrophes of this nature mean for the nation's parks? And, how can recreation, sports and fitness facilities deal with disasters?

"A critical thing to keep in mind is that Americans love their national parks. They visit them as a main recreational activity in their life. Whether it's the long-planned trip to Yellowstone Park in the family car, or the trip down the road to stop at the Statue of Liberty, Americans visit their national parks to get away from their daily life, to learn about their history and culture, and to find solitude. So, when our parks are affected by disaster, it has an effect on all Americans," said John Adornato, III, regional director in the Sun Coast Regional Office of the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA) in Hollywood, Fla.

The effects of such calamities on people and wildlife are extreme, but parks and recreation areas have suffered as well. Here, Recreation Management looks at how parks, and recreation, sports and fitness facilities can best deal with a disaster, and what some parks have been doing already to triumph over disaster.

Preparing for Disaster

No one could have predicted Hurricane Katrina or the Gulf oil spill. But, experts say there are some ways parks and recreation can prepare for a disaster.

For instance, the American Camp Association, a community of camp professionals based in Martinsville, Ind., has disaster plans in place.

"Camps need to first identify potential emergencies/disasters that might occur. This might be through a natural disaster (tornado, fire, floods) or medical emergency (24-hour flu)," said Peg Smith, CEO of the American Camp Association. "Next, they need to determine what actions need to be taken to prevent damage: fire mitigation, tree assessment and removal as necessary, sanitation procedures to be followed (hand washing, wiping down door knobs, phones, light switches with bleach solution), etc."

The National Recreation and Park Association (NRPA) developed a disaster preparedness list that parks and recreation can use to prepare for a disaster.

Based on this information, camps should make a plan to be followed in the event something does occur. The plan, she said, should clearly outline the following:

  • Who is responsible for campers?
  • Where will everyone go? On-site?
  • How will everyone be transported if that is necessary?
  • Who is responsible for necessary records/medication?
  • Who is responsible for any external communication?
  • How will internal communication be handled?
  • Who needs to be contacted (parents, insurance provider, etc.)?

"One of the most critical steps is to practice the plan," Smith said. "Camps should set up scenarios and have staff go through each one as though it is a real situation. This gives staff first-hand experience, which tends to stick better than just talking about it. After the drill, camps need to evaluate and determine what worked well, what might need to be revised."

She added, "As camps vary greatly, ACA does not have one specific plan. Instead, we ask each camp to create what is most appropriate for them. Camps should also rely on expert advice when formulating the plan. For example, when outlining a plan for an influenza outbreak, camps should check with the CDC and AAP on recommendations, and be sure any plan is compliant."

Smith also said that campers should always be aware of potential situations and even be involved in some of the drills.

"Make them as real as possible with campers bringing their day packs with water, packing an extra set of clothes, making sure they have on appropriate footwear, etc. Like so many things in camp, this is a real teachable moment. By discussing why drills are done, and the importance of being prepared, camps are teaching life lessons that extend well beyond the camp season," she said.

In addition to camps, the National Recreation and Park Association (NRPA) developed a disaster preparedness list that parks and recreation can use to prepare for a disaster.

First, make known and make available the various resources that park and recreation departments have for disaster response (recreation centers, public spaces, equipment, personnel, public restrooms, campsites, etc.).

"Parks and recreation organizations in any community need to be a player in any disaster preparedness plan. There are a variety of resources with parks and recreation. [They can serve] as shelters for people who have lost housing," said Bill Beckner, research manager for the NRPA. "It may serve as shelters for people who are preparing for a tornado.

"If you are talking about a park in the community and you have a microburst and blow-down of trees, on the property, it's looking at all the possibilities and who has the resources to provide and help," he said. "If you can get those kinds of emergency evacuation routes, disaster locations, identify it early so that people know them."

Next, be sure to maintain a complete inventory of physical assets associated with park and recreation agencies.

"You can't maintain what you don't know about. The very first thing for a reasonable maintenance management system is to have that inventory," Beckner said.

Third, be sure to plan for recreation relief in the instance of a disaster.

"There is the element [where] if you have all these people who are in emotional distress, they are all camped out in the gym. There are 50 families. What do you do? And, if you have pools, and all these different types of facilities, you go into another mode of operation of people who have been affected. That should be part of your internal planning," he said.

For example, people in New Orleans who were affected by Hurricane Katrina ended up having to stay at the Louisiana Superdome.

"It was a humid dome. There wasn't anybody to plan for the kinds of disasters that they had. [There wasn't a] plan for the magnitude of what was coming," Beckner said. "The levees were not built to withstand that much water."

You also need to develop and improve upon existing readiness plans for park and recreation personnel and the communities that they serve. Such plans must include preparations for natural disasters, terrorist attacks and biological events (avian flu, West Nile virus, etc.).

THE NRPA also suggested these steps
  • Include park and recreation facilities when allocating funding for personnel and recovery efforts.
  • Support federal and state government entities in damage assessments and relief efforts following a disaster.

Other steps to consider in disaster recovery include the following, suggested Peg Smith of the ACA.

  • Having backups of all electronic files readily available.
  • Having individuals off-site available to help with necessary communication (create a team).
  • In the event the site is damaged, have a relocation plan.
  • Work closely with insurance providers prior to the season to ensure proper coverage. For example, to cover costs in the event your kitchen burns down and you have to rent equipment to create a temporary kitchen.

John Hopper, New Orleans City Park (NOCP) chief development officer and public affairs director, said that it was helpful that the park already had a plan in place when Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans City Park.

"It helped us to have a plan. Having plan in place really helps. In retrospect, it would've been easier in our negotiations if we had more photographs of all of our buildings and content," he said, adding that it's important that everything be photographed and taped so that when it comes down to having to prove what belongings you had, you have photos to show of what was actually there.

"For us, you can never anticipate everything. In retrospect, do we wish our archives were on the second floor instead of the first floor? Yes. But, no one knew that when we left that part of the park that it was going to be under four feet of water," he added.

California State Parks has emergency response plans that address continuity—how they are going to continue through an emergency, and how they are going to be dispatching with park rangers.

California State Parks are split into districts, as well.

"Each park unit has an emergency response plan for that unit," said Tony Perez, deputy director of park operations, California State Parks. "We know our inventory. And, depending on the emergency, it spells out how we're going to react."

Perez noted that fires in California have had devastating effects on Cuyamaca Rancho State Park, and other parks within the state.

After the Storm

Following a disaster, there's not much else you can do except try to pick up the pieces.

For Flamingo Lodge in Everglades National Park in South Florida, several years have passed since two back-to-back hurricanes—Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Wilma—put the lodging facility, which opened in 1959, out of business.

Everglades National Park is considered the largest subtropical wilderness in the United States, and is a designated World Heritage Site, International Biosphere Reserve and Wetland of International Importance. The history of the Everglades is vast, and one that many in that area want to remember. Boaters, campers and tourists have frequented the national park over the years, bringing in local business and creating fond memories with their families and friends.

Following a disaster,
there's not much else
you can do except try to
pick up the pieces.

"[Flamingo Lodge] had been there for 50 years, as a vital component of the South Florida community, and all the visitors who came, they used Flamingo as a base camp … to learn about the Everglades, to have the quintessential family vacation," Adornato said. "It's been six years since the hurricanes, and it hasn't been rebuilt. One of the concerns is funding. Everybody talks about it that if we just had more money. But, you have to prioritize funding."

The NPCA produced a report that showed that for every federal dollar invested in national parks there is a $4 return to the local economy.

"The NPCA has been one of the leading organizations in urging the park service to re-create this unique place. The park service has to have a plan. So, now they have a final plan. And, we've been pushing them year after year to keep them on track," he said. "The bottom line is that we're at a junction based on funding.

"There is an economic benefit, an intended benefit of having Americans and our visitors understand the unique resources of America. There is no other Everglades in the world," Adornato said. "They are here in South Florida. There is an inherent benefit to that. We said in the past that our national parks are our nation's largest university."

Adornato also noted that the Gulf oil spill's devastation came not long after restaurants in the area were coming back and shops were opening again. The NPCA visited the Gulf Coast after the oil spill, and found that the effects on wildlife have been devastating. Sea turtles were washed up dead on Gulf beaches, as well as thousands of birds and some mammals.

"It took four or five years from those devastating hurricanes to reconnect people with traditional summer vacations, natural experiences and beaches," he added. "And, then we have this oil explosion."

As for New Orleans City Park (NOCP), plans are under way to rebuild the park destroyed by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Back in March 2005, a $115 million master plan—City Park 2018—was created to help rebuild parts of NOCP, but more was added to the list following Hurricane Katrina in August 2005.

So far, the NOCP has raised $84 million toward its goal of $143 million. The money has been raised through a combination of federal, state, local and private donations.

"Our message is that we are not just repairing hurricane damage, but rather that we are building a better park," Hopper, of the NOCP, said.

Since Hurricane Katrina in August 2005, the 1,300-acre City Park has accomplished the following:

  • Built the Goldring/Woldenberg Great Lawn, a $2.7 million development that was part of the original master plan.
  • Constructed the new Big Lake area. "There are beautiful paths that go out into the lake, and shoreline grasses. It's just beautiful," Hopper said.
  • Renovated flood -damaged Tad Gormley and Pan American Stadiums.
  • Renovated the practice track surface.
  • Renovated the North Golf Course.
  • Renovated the Casino Building.
  • Installed four miles of new sidewalks and jogging paths.
  • Completed Carousel renovations and installed two new rides in the Amusement Park.
  • Replanted the Botanical Garden and renovated all of its buildings.
  • Installed a new high-tech playground.
  • Repaired all Storyland exhibits and added two new ones.
  • Planted more than 4,000 trees.
  • Used 35,000 volunteers who have made dramatic improvements in the park.
  • Demolished several hurricane-damaged buildings.
  • Repaved Harrison, Wisner, Robert E. Lee and Marconi.
  • Landscaped the entrance to the park.
  • Opened the new dog park, called City Bark! "The dog park was in our plans as part of master plan," Hopper said, adding that it cost $645,000 to build. "Again, it was a case of we could put a chain link fence and call it a day, but the dog park has won several awards in the country. We did it right. People use it and respect it."
  • Finished a 250-car parking lot.
  • Built a new fishing pier along Marconi.

"Many parts of the park look better than they have in decades. The park is looking good," Hopper said.

Additional information on what the NOCP will be doing to rebuild the park can be found at

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