Disaster Recovery

Playgrounds & Parks Rebuild Following Wrath of Storms

By Deborah L. Vence

Some of the biggest natural disasters on record in the United States have occurred in the past several years—Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, the EF5 tornado in Joplin, Mo., and Hurricane Sandy, also known as "Superstorm Sandy," which tore through most of the eastern United States, including New Jersey and New York, last year.

The storms destroyed a multitude of homes and businesses, and took the lives of thousands. The ongoing mission since these series of storms has been to find a way back to normalcy, to try to move forward and rebuild what was lost—and that includes getting parks and playgrounds back in shape.

In fact, recreation professionals say the best way to accomplish this is to have the right methods and systems in place in preparing for and recovering from disasters.

"I think without a doubt there are people who have a checklist of things that they can do. But, almost every jurisdiction, in some capacity or other, depending on the frequency with which they may be threatened—whether it's by winter condition, water, in the form of floods, or drought, and fires, hurricanes and tornadoes and earthquakes—almost every jurisdiction has some link or some involvement in disaster preparedness," said Bill Beckner, research manager at the National Recreation and Park Association (NRPA).

In this issue of Recreation Management, we discuss how parks and recreation organizations can best prepare for a natural disaster, and how some parks and playgrounds hit hard by the storms are rebuilding their way back already.

Getting Prepared

One of the most important factors in preparing for a disaster is to have parks and recreation professionals at the table.

Regardless of whether there is a city manager or county manager, those who are involved in disaster preparedness might not necessarily see where the relationship is in having recreation experts involved. However, recreation professionals can be responsible for helping to organize activities for children to help comfort them and divert their attention away from a crisis, Beckner said.

When communities are prepared, they have "recreation staff to entertain, or organize people into activities, things of that sort," he said. "It's going in and starting the process of thinking about what can happen and what the impact will have on the community."

Equally important is to have an emergency response plan in place, such as in California, which has one for every district in the state, noted Mark Hada, Superintendent III, Public Safety/Sutter's Fort State Historic Park/State Indian Museum, Sacramento, Calif.

"Contained within the plan are various scenarios for emergencies that may become relevant to that particular district. All plans have some commonalities, such as evacuation and recovery. Then each plan has specifics that will impact an individual district area. For example, coastal units (i.e., beaches) will have a Tsunami Response plan," Hada said.

Also, "Park units with large amounts of open recreation area will have fire plans," he said. "The plans will include information on who should be coordinated with, the order it should be done in, and what portions of parks contain particularly sensitive areas, hazardous materials, and, of course, where the visitors are, to name a few."

Should a large emergency occur at one more of their facilities or should an emergency situation occur that has a large impact around the state, the California Department of Parks and Recreation (California State Parks) may decide to open its Department Emergency Operations Center (DOC).

"Typically, this decision is made by the chief of the LEES Division upon consultation with the deputy director for park operations. A temporary site is set at headquarters in Sacramento. Key staff then deploy to the primary location, where materials and equipment are available to assist the park units or other state agencies as needed," Hada said.

And, if the situation calls for it, a member of the parks staff is then sent to the State Warning Center in order to provide assistance and/or information to other state agencies.

"When the governor declares a state of emergency, all state agencies have specific responsibilities that they must be able to do," Hada said. "State parks responsibilities include, but are not limited to providing evacuation locations and assistance with any needed law enforcement response. Districts and individual park units are also expected to send representatives to local and regional emergency operations centers in order to coordinate responses to various emergencies."

Craig Sap, district superintendent, Angeles District, Calabasas, Calif., noted that all state parks in California have wildfire management plans, and are basically detailed by unit. "Within each unit, they use camp areas. You have preventive measures in place," he said.

In one example, campgrounds were the focus of a successful fire attack strategy at Point Mugu in Ventura County. The Springs fire burned 80 percent of Pt. Mugu State Park back in May. But, an intense, focused effort reopened trails throughout the park within a couple of weeks. The fire originally started May 3, and went on for three or four days.

"When the governor declares a state of emergency, all state agencies have specific responsibilities that they must be able to do."
— Mark Hada, Superintendent III, Public Safety/Sutter's Fort State Historic Park/State Indian Museum, Sacramento, Calif.

Sap said that typically a fire of that size gets FEMA support. But, "not many structures were burnt," he said, adding that two ranch buildings, an abandoned building and bathroom structure were affected by the fire.

What's more, an evacuation plan also has been developed for removing millions of dollars' worth of art from the Will Rogers home, with trucks on hand, a system and order for packing artwork and plans to move from a highly congested Pacific Palisades area in California. (Will Rogers State Historic Park is the former estate of American humorist Will Rogers. It is located in the Santa Monica mountains in Los Angeles, in the Pacific Palisades area. Rogers built a 31-room ranch house there.)

Much of California's statewide disaster preparedness training and planning has to take place on the regional or local level because of the types of geography, resources, agency and political interaction, etc. That is, what works in a park near urban Los Angeles might not be the same blueprint for a park in the high sierra or the desert or a historic park in the floodplain in Sacramento, for example.

Sap explained that the process of disaster recovery entails preparing buildings for disaster, keeping a perimeter of space around buildings and roadways, which takes place on an annual basis. "Other preparation procedures include testing fire hydrants and training people in terms of evacuation," he said. "Those are kind of prepared things. Training is ongoing for people, in preparation for these types of events. It could be torrential rains that force you to do certain things."

Without a doubt, the lessons learned from previous disasters helped State Parks know how to protect assets from fire and how to get park resources up in running quickly after a disaster.

"One thing is key, past history. We know from past history. And you have an east wind, we know the fire behavior. Nearly 20 years, we have high fuel content. Five miles, six miles away, we have made a decision to evacuate," he added.

And, with some of the lessons from the past, a key step is to know what inventory you have.

"You have to have a method to the madness, so to speak. You have to know how to evacuate that house. You get certain events in which you have to remove the items. You have to watch it and monitor it. You look at the wind patterns, and what the prognosis is," Sap said.

The Jersey Shore

The Jersey Shore already has acquired some new playgrounds this year since being pounded by Superstorm Sandy in October 2012.

Prior to the hurricane, Belmar—a borough in Monmouth County, N.J., at the Jersey Shore—had four playgrounds on its beaches. Unfortunately, the severe fury of Superstorm Sandy hit the Belmar area hard, destroying the playgrounds.

The Belmar area playground equipment was not destroyed by water, but by "the boardwalks that were coming up," which were crashing into the equipment, ultimately destroying it, said Matt Miller, director of marketing communications for MRC Recreation Inc., based in Springlake, N.J.

A few months after the storm, plans already were being made between MRC (formerly known as Marturano Recreation Company) and a playground manufacturer to design and install four new customized playgrounds at the Jersey Shore. The project was completed under time constraints to get the playgrounds ready for children by Memorial Day Weekend (one of the busiest weekends at the Jersey Shore).

"It was nothing like they have now. The new ones are extremely customized," Miller said.

"They made some big-time improvements. The boardwalk is right behind them. They are on the beach in the sand," he said.

With several options provided, the pirate theme was chosen for the playgrounds. Fully customized GFRC pieces were included, such as jet skis, turtles and dolphins. Glass fiber reinforced concrete (GFRC) has a concrete feel but is easily moldable into the various shapes/molds to make things such as the pirate ship and the jet ski climbers.

"One of the big things in New Jersey is Memorial Day. That was one of the things, not to miss a year of that," Miller said. "People look forward to it."

Since the playgrounds were installed, the response from the public has been encouraging.

"People are finally getting back to the beach and enjoying spending time there. It's great to see people enjoying things again, rather than 10-foot dunes and destroyed boardwalks. We're coming back to what we knew," he said, adding that his company is constructing about eight other playgrounds in New Jersey.

And, without a doubt, the new playgrounds have helped bring foot traffic to businesses on the Jersey Shore.

"The recreation equipment brings families and keeps people there longer. Without that there, businesses would be hurting really badly," he added.

Joplin's Playgrounds

Cunningham Park, Garvin Park and Parr Hill Park in Joplin, Mo., were damaged severely following an EF5 tornado that ripped through the city on May 22, 2011, causing more than $2 billion in damage.

But, since then, all of the parks have been renovated or have seen vast improvements.

One of the first parks to be restored, "Cunningham Park, especially, was the oldest park in our area, and now it's a destination location," said Chris Cotten, director of Joplin Parks and Recreation.

To date, three new playgrounds have been installed at Cunningham Park. Cotten said that the Monett, Mo.-based playground manufacturer that installed the playgrounds was "extremely diligent about helping Joplin recover from the storm."

Designed to accommodate more children, up to 190, the playgrounds are designed for children of various ages, with a smaller playground available for 2- to 5-year-olds, and the larger playground for 5- to12-year-olds.

To boot, the new playsystem has multiple levels, with many play activities and a total of six slides. Two of those slides are more than 14 feet high.

"We found it ironic that [after the tornado] it was just the playground that was standing," Cotten said, adding that the playground area, prior to the tornado, wasn't overly busy. But, now, it attracts about 1,500 to 2,000 people a day. "The area where the original playground stood, that is now a pond, a memorial to those children we lost in the storm."

Most recently, Parr Hill Park reopened in early July following renovations. New features of Parr Hill Park include an off-leash dog park and a new splashpad, ultimately the main attraction. Parr Hill is the last city park in Joplin to reopen after the tornado, but it has twice as many features as before.

For example, prior to the tornado, only a single shelter and playground existed on the site, with visitors having to park on the street.

Today, along with the splashpad and dog park, Parr Hill reportedly has three shelters, three playgrounds and off-street parking.

Lastly, reports have indicated that improvements to Garvin Park include playground equipment that has been repaired and the shelter that has been reroofed.

New Orleans City Park

"We are not repairing a park damaged by a hurricane. We are building a vastly world-class park."

That is the message that New Orleans City Park officials have been trying to deliver to the community as extensive renovations continue at the historic park that was devastated in late August 2005 by Hurricane Katrina, a Category 5 hurricane that has been classified as the costliest natural disaster in U.S. history. After the hurricane, the park was 85 percent underwater and left with $43 million in damages.

Extensive damage occurred to virtually all of the buildings, amusement rides, maintenance equipment, electrical systems and vehicles, and caused the death of more trees and landscaping—including just about the entire plant collection in the New Orleans Botanical Garden, described as a lush 13-acre site that boasts a large collection of temperate, tropical and semitropical plants.

"We lost pretty much all of our equipment. I think we had well over 100 buildings or structures … a golf course, a rest area to an administration building that were damaged and uninhabitable," said John Hopper, New Orleans City Park development officer and public affairs director.

"We rely heavily on the public using the park and paying fees. Our revenue stream went to zilch [after Hurricane Katrina]. People couldn't get to the park. We went from about 150 full-time employees down to 23 employees. People had double damage. We're not a fortune 500 company, so people got a couple of weeks pay, but not six months. It was bleak," Hopper said.

However, since the hurricane, park officials have been on a journey to rebuild the historic park. The first step in rebuilding was having discussions with the park's CEO, which took place almost as soon as the hurricane hit.

"[The question was], what do we do? There was a certain amount of numbness. We came back to the park in September. The National Guard was still everywhere. It was still all brown. We knew it was going to be a marathon," he said.

No doubt a helpful blueprint to help restore the park was the New Orleans City Park 2018 master plan, originally adopted in early 2005, which was created to make improvements to the park. The original plan had a $115 million price tag. Hurricane Katrina bumped it up to about $150 million. And to date, $108 million has been raised.

"There is some light at the end of the tunnel. And, the main thing is, anybody can come to the park now. People see it. For every one negative, we get nine atta-boys," Hopper said.

"Part of the whole rebuilding thing, the plan all along took a couple of years to develop. We knew what we wanted the park to look like. The funding, which is my role, even when people are sympathetic they still want to have the reassurance that something good will happen with their money. It was easier to raise the confidence level of donors," he said.

Park officials had many goals within the plan early on, and improvements were evident almost immediately. For example, "in late November 2005 we had a big celebration … a truncated version of the botanical garden was opened," Hopper said. "It was important for us. It was a revenue stream. It was one of the first public events that things looked normal. It was good for the community and good for the park."

Today, more than two-thirds of the park has been revitalized and reenergized, with significant acreage set to be a golf course—a championship-level golf course, in fact, which has the potential to host major tournaments. To boot, while more than 2,000 trees were lost due to the hurricane, since that time, more than 5,000 trees have been planted.

In terms of foot traffic, park-goers who previously were using the park are now coming even earlier to use it.

"When I would get there at 7:30 in the morning, there would virtually be no cars. Now, you come in [at that time] and there's 30 cars parked there. …It's not just come, exercise and leave, but it's also about socializing," Hopper said, adding that the park has an award-winning 4.7-acre dog park, which was part of the master plan.

At the festival grounds, exercise equipment is available to the public, including a bike, bench press and stair-stepper, as well as traditional chin-up bars and a balance beam; not to mention the "best [26-court] tennis complex in the state of Louisiana. Clay courts. Beautiful," he said, adding that since most area high schools don't have their own football stadiums, they can go to New Orleans City Park, which boasts two stadiums—one that holds more than 25,000 and another that seats 5,000. Pan American Stadium was completely rebuilt with artificial turf.

Other attractions at the park that have reopened include the botanical garden, as well as the Carousel Gardens Amusement Park that features a miniature train, a small roller coaster and 15 other rides.

"We have a turn-of-the-century amusement park, with the oldest carousel in the state of Louisiana," Hopper said, adding that there is a lot of old growth of live oak trees. The live oaks are some of the oldest—600 or 800 years old. "The number one thing, when you hear the name City Park, you think of the trees.

"In the master plan process, people told us that they wanted more public places. So, the master plan calls for two golf courses that enabled us to build a 25-acre open recreation space with a lake in the park, with -mile trail around it," he said. "Last year, next to it, we opened up another 50 acres of festival grounds with a one-mile trail. So now there are 50-plus acres for the public to use, walk and skateboard."

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