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."

Encourage Recovery Efforts

With or without a plan, however, parks and recreation areas still have to figure out a way to pick up the pieces and move on after a disaster occurs.

A park area in New Jersey has worked to get back on track following Hurricane Sandy—a destructive hurricane that pounded the East Coast back in 2012 and caused billions of dollars in damage.

"Our clients all along the New Jersey Shore area were severely affected by Superstorm Sandy," Miller said. "One in particular near our office is Belmar, N.J. Several of their playgrounds located on the beach were damaged. Following the storm, they had our designers come evaluate the play structures and decided to replace them completely."

Historically, the Borough of Belmar, N.J., has had playground equipment along their beaches for beachgoers to enjoy.

Miller explained that during Superstorm Sandy, the playgrounds were submerged in the Atlantic Ocean waters for several days before the water subsided.

"While playground manufacturers go to great lengths to prevent corrosion, saltwater is particularly corrosive, especially when exposed to the playground for extensive periods of time," Miller said.

"The play structures were further damaged by debris including pieces of the boardwalk being slammed into them," he said. "Slides and other lighter components broke off from the constant beating and washed into the ocean. Between the water and physical damage, it was decided [that] new structures would be the best option."

Belmar chose an aquatic theme for their four new play structures along the beach.

"The custom GFRC pirate ship playgrounds (two of them), along with the other themed components on the four playgrounds, totaled about $300,000. Budget costs for the four playgrounds can range anywhere from about $75,000 to $1 million-plus, depending on the type of playground equipment and the level of customization the customer is seeking," Miller explained.

In another example, Wright talked about the efforts in Houston following Hurricane Harvey in 2017, a devastating storm that is considered one of the costliest tropical cyclones on record, causing billions of dollars in damage, mainly from flooding in the Houston metropolitan area and Southeast Texas.

"We were fortunate to have only two parks under the department's management that received damage during Hurricane Harvey. Lake Houston Wilderness Park (4,786 acres), which required complete building repairs and/or relocation and replacement, and Cullen Park, a 200-acre park where silt deposits covered the entire park and had to be removed," Wright said.

At Lake Houston Wilderness Park, 10 buildings took on water in the park, and trails and campsites were damaged. The parks' two lodges took on 8 and 12 feet of water and are still closed.

Volunteers and a government-funded program, called Turnaround Houston, helped tremendously with rebuilding the park. "They supplied two temporary employees that worked 40 hours per week to help rebuild the park," Wright said.

Volunteers stepped in and continue to volunteer over a year later to help with recovery efforts on various projects that help recover and improve the park.

Cullen Park lies partly within the Addicks Reservoir, which is managed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Recovery efforts, which are still in progress, have included the following:

  • More than 4,000 cubic yards of silt removed from parking lots, picnic areas, drainage swales and roads.
  • Two competitive-level soccer fields completely renovated (silt removed, turf aerated, seeded with Bermudagrass).
  • Four competitive-level softball fields completely renovated (silt removed, turf aerated, replaced infield clay and conditioner).
  • Numerous thousands of pounds of debris were removed from the park.
  • Maintenance facility restoration (walls, flooring, furniture).
  • Numerous trees died and had to be removed.

Resume Normal Operations

For sure, one of the most challenging jobs following any natural disaster is returning to normal operations and knowing how to accomplish that.

Michelet suggests, for example, that before you repair anything, that you document the damage the way FEMA requires, or make the decision that you will cover the costs yourself.

"If facilities are unsafe, make certain the public is aware of the danger and stays away until all of the repairs are made," she said. "At first, use the facilities that are operable to house emergency camps, recovery supplies, emergency equipment, entertainment for shelter inhabitants—any way that makes sense for the facility and that will aid in the recovery. Promote what you are doing on social media, news releases and your website.

"Once the initial shock is over and people need a diversion, start promoting your facilities as places where people can go to take a break from gutting houses, picking up debris, rebuilding or whatever they are doing to rebuild the community. Remind the community that nature helps with the healing process and exercise is even more necessary during these times to stay healthy and active," Michelet said. "In a few months, you can resume your typical promotions as a step toward helping your community [to] get back to a semblance of normalcy.

"Parks and recreation agencies can help in ways people might not think of," she added, "such as bringing mobile recreation units to shelters as long as they are open, giving children fun, healthy activity while providing parents a chance to grieve privately and make all of the phone calls and meetings it takes to get out of a shelter and back into a home."

Wright suggested to "Plan ahead by having a city or department disaster plan in place and follow your disaster plan procedures. Consider the two areas that are involved in resuming operations: facilities management and user experience.

Facilities management:

  • Work with your purchasing departments before hurricane season to secure prepositioned contracts which set firm pricing for emergency services after a storm.
  • Make sure you understand FEMA's documentation process and the requirements. Take pictures of your facilities before the event, immediately following the event, during the repairs and after the repairs are completed.
  • Use FEMA documents from day one when recording labor hours, equipment rentals and materials/supplies purchases. Download the FEMA Public Assistance and Policy Program Guide and read.

From the recreational user's perspective:

  • Determine which programs will have to be cancelled and when they can be reinstated.
  • Determine if refunds are needed or credits will be given for the next programming period.
  • Ensure that all recovery and program implementation timelines are approved by your facility and green space crews.
  • Communicate with your users regarding site reopening and resumption of programming dates and times.


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