Storm warning: Lessons from Hurricane Ian

Superintendents share takeaways from the 2022 storm that could help crews prepare for similar future events.


Hurricane Ian damage
Hurricane Ian left behind plenty to clean up for Jesse Metcalf, the superintendent at The Forest Country Club in in Fort Myers, Fla. Photos courtesy of Jesse Metcalf

Jesse Metcalf, the GCSAA Class A superintendent at The Forest Country Club in Fort Myers, Fla., thought he’d prepped about as well as one could prior to Hurricane Ian, which battered, drenched and ultimately submerged several golf courses on Florida’s west coast early in October.

“We locked everything up, did our pump station prep, all that kind of stuff,” Metcalf recalled in early December. “What we did not account for was 5 feet of seawater coming across the entire property. I’ve lived my entire life in Florida, and I’d never seen anything like that. Just not something they teach you at turf school.”

You mean, a class like, “When the Ocean Covers Your Golf Course 101”?

“Yeah, I guess they didn’t offer that course when I was at school,” he says.

The aftermath of Hurricane Ian continued straight through the holiday season in southwest Florida, particularly west of Highway 41, the unofficial demarcation line between courses that sustained some damage and those that couldn’t reopen for weeks or even months. Course superintendents tend to be world-class preppers, especially in Florida. Yet serious events like Ian tend to produce philosophical takeaways, as opposed to lessons to be taken forward to the next storm.

“The major lessons we’re learning all revolve around the ideas that you really cannot be fully prepared for what Mother Nature will do to you,” said Roy Jones, 21-year GCSAA member and head superintendent at The Dunes Golf & Tennis Club on Sanibel Island, where the property was still without power on the first of December. “The biggest takeaway is, ‘Always prepare for the absolute worst.’ That’s been my approach, and I still left behind — in my office — all the backups for my irrigation system. So, all the as-builts for the system are gone. That’ll be a fun one to remedy.

“It honestly feels like silly and truly basic stuff when you’re in the process of putting together a preparation plan. But I rescued just one weedeater and two hedge trimmers, and the only reason I did? They were hanging high on a wall with the motor head up by the ceiling. Lesson learned. Equipment or anything you desperately need? Stick it on a trailer and take it off-island — or put it on a really high shelf.”

Hurricane Ian damage
“I’ve lived my entire life in Florida, and I’d never seen anything like that,” Metcalf says. “Just not something they teach you at turf school.”

Prepping and communicating for the hurricane

Over and over, Florida superintendents who’ve been through hurricanes stress the importance of communication. Mainly they concentrate on the practical preparedness, such as preparing members ahead of time and keeping them continually updated and by gathering cellphone numbers for every member of their staffs, because the safety of all those men and women needs to be accounted for, and they all have families and properties of their own that will need their time and attention.

But if you think about it, for superintendents, a “preparedness plan” is really a form of communication with your future self. Because sometimes the basics, or the randomness of hurricane storm surges — and the human tendency to downplay the potential danger of that which is random — tend to get lost or minimized over time.

“I’m east of I-75 now, so we had major cleanup, but nothing like guys are dealing with closer to the Gulf,” said Florida GCSA President Bryce Koch, CGCS, the superintendent at Cypress Lake Golf Club in Fort Myers and 18-year association member. “It’s really all about the storm surge. I think back to Irma, in 2017, when I lived in a different house, in Naples. We were told to hunker down because they were expecting 13-14 feet of surge in our specific area. So, I’m watching the forecast and hearing all these predictions. I was out in front of my house asking myself what 13-14 feet looks like. I said to my wife, ‘We’d be on the roof!’

“It never came, thank God. But that’s what guys on the coast experienced with Ian. With direct hits, combined with a surge, it’s movie-type stuff with flooded homes, buildings floating away and boats on fairways. If they call for a surge, you have to be very particular with where you’re at.”

Hurricane Ian damage
A part of a roof found its way to the 15th hole at Cypress Lake Golf Club in Fort Myers. Superintendent Bryce Koch, CGCS, said that while his course did sustain damage, it was “nothing like guys are dealing with closer to the Gulf.” Photos courtesy of Bryce Koch

Koch indicated that he likes to be 25% to 30% prepared at all times, ahead of time, “so you can get everything else prepared when you know it’s gonna hit you directly, which is something where you typically get a good sense for maybe two to three days in advance.”

Agronomic prep is pretty straight forward, according to Ralph Dain, the GCSAA field staff representative in southwest Florida. Most superintendents:

  • Spray an application of a fungicide ahead of the storm, as a preventative disease suppressant.
  • Apply plant growth regulators with a full wrap, because who knows when you’ll be able to mow again?
  • Put down wetting agents, which generally help pass water more quickly through the soil profile.
  • Get in one final cut, ideally on Day Zero.

The remainder of a superintendent’s pre-storm time, most agree, should be dedicated to communication and the property’s physical plant — topping off machines and generators with fuel, moving furniture and equipment inland or to markedly higher ground, etc. At The Dunes on Sanibel, Jones stashed a bunch of equipment in the clubhouse, which sits quite a bit higher than the maintenance facility. That’s some of the only equipment he won’t have to replace.

Effective communication includes lining up tree vendors and access to pumps and/or generators ahead of time. In the case of Hurricane Ian, the timing in particular proved most unfortunate. Late-September landfall meant snowbird members — those who had not been prepped with communication/outreach — showed up a few weeks later wondering why things hadn’t been cleaned up.

“You’re never gonna please everyone, but we’re lucky here to have one of the nicest groups of people who are 100% behind the staff, and so appreciative,” Metcalf says of his membership. “They really appreciated the regular newsletter communication, all the pictures. Communication is such a huge thing. Open and forthcoming; that’s our theme. This is where we are, and here’s what’s coming.”

Hurricane Ian damage
Tree damage along the seventh hole at Cypress Lake Golf Club.

What comes afterward

Post storm? Let’s just say that most turf programs don’t offer MacGyver 101, either.

“The water receded here after three days, but we had some holes underwater for three weeks,” says Metcalf, a 13-year GCSAA member who looks after 36 holes at The Forest. “On top of all that, we had just tons of tree work to do. My GM asked me, ‘Where do we start?’ And I gotta tell you, that was a tough question to answer on day one. So, we rode around and assessed which of the two courses we could open faster. And once we made that decision, we came up with a plan of attack.”

Metcalf went to work on the better-draining Bear Course first, to minimize tire damage from heavier equipment. Essentially, his crews followed tree crews through the entire routing, picking up debris and prepping for the first mowing passes. About the same time, maintenance crews cleaned up the clubhouse area and reopened the driving range, so members would have somewhere to go. When cleanup on The Bear was done, Metcalf and his crew followed the tree crews around the Bobcat Course.

The Bobcat only reopened in mid-November. The Bear was back online in a month, despite the fact that Metcalf didn’t have water for the first three weeks. “Getting a generator to run the pump station was incredibly challenging,” he says. “Keeping the golf course alive with no pumps was a challenge because bermuda does need to be watered every once in a while. We had to get pretty creative. Most of the equipment was destroyed, so my mechanics — God bless ’em — got a couple spray rigs running after going to Home Depot for hoses and impact sprinklers. They basically turned the sprayers into water wagons.

Hurricane Ian damage
Damage to The Dunes Golf & Tennis Club on Sanibel Island, which was still not reopened for play as of early December. Photos courtesy of Roy Jones

“We had some vendors donate calcium tablets to help knock salt off the soil column and keep them on life support. We also did 1,000 pounds per acre of gypsum across both golf courses, for the same purpose. Having some experience dealing with salty water helped. But I was just kind of winging it.”

In early December, Metcalf reported, “We’re still not done. We’re operating with half the equipment we had before. We’re just trying to get creative with our schedule — when to mow this course or that course.

“But one of the most amazing things to me was the outreach of fellow supers and vendors — people in the industry calling to say, ‘What can I do to help? You need any extra fertilizer? Can we come cook lunch for you?’ It was awesome to see. A lot of these guys I didn’t even know. The outreach and offers of support were incredible to me.”

Regrouping … and reality

Back on Sanibel Island, as far west of Highway 41 as one can get in Southwest Florida, Jones and his crews were nowhere near reopening — not in early December. No power. No irrigation. Precious little esprit de corps.

“We’ll do an irrigation upgrade, but with supply chain issues being what they are, we’re three to four weeks from heads coming in. It’s all weeks and months away,” Jones said. “Same with equipment. We lease most of it on a two-to-four-year cycle. With everything gone, the distributor says 15 months and out on this stuff. The distributors have been really good. They’ve loaned us a bunch of stuff. But we’re nowhere near able to operate or properly maintain a golf course.

Hurricane Ian damage
At The Dunes Golf & Tennis Club on Sanibel Island superintendent Roy Jones says keeping up staff morale has been as big of a challenge as the cleanup from Hurricane Ian.

“I’ve had to lay off a lot of staff. We’re operating 8 to 2 (p.m.) now, just trying to keep the crew engaged as we go through the insurance process. It’s honestly a grind for everyone to come in and see the devastation all around you, day after day — the mounds of debris and household trash, the constant drone of chainsaws. My GM suggested shorter days and three-day weekends, and those were good ideas. We’re trying to get open, trying to get a sense of normalcy back. But with supply chain issues, the end of January would be great. Being open is more a state of mind, honestly. Not a product.”

Still, even a superintendent under this sort of duress never stops planning and prepping.

“The financials will dictate where we go, honestly, but we’ve tossed around the idea of converting our greens to paspalum,” Jones says. “We’re TifEagle now. I know guys who’ve got paspalum on the greens, and they’re really good right now. The salt-tolerance is working for them. But the issue is, we’re so reliant on effluent here, 100%. And if you can’t irrigate the paspalum, it’s a nightmare to bring back. We have holding ponds with 3 to 4 weeks of water, 75 acres of lakes. But it’s all seawater now.

Hurricane Ian damage
“It’s honestly a grind for everyone to come in and see the devastation all around you, day after day,” Jones says of the cleanup process.

“In the meantime, we got a water tanker out here a couple times a week. We’re using Hydretain to keep things moist, and we raised the height of cut to a quarter-inch. I did some cores: Got the best root structure I’ve ever had on these greens! But they’re thin. Once we get the irrigation back on, and we flush them with copious amounts of gypsum and calcium, we’ll get them back. The rest of the course is bermuda, and that’ll come back no matter what you do. Might not be the cultivar or the color you want, but …

“This is the fourth or fifth major hurricane I’ve been through. I took my family outta here for Irma. We were really panicky and went up to Gainesville. But we stayed for this one because, honestly, you get something of a blasé attitude toward hurricanes after a while. But after dealing with this one? Next time we’re getting outta town.”

Hal Phillips is the managing director of golf and resorts for Mandarin Media, a public relations firm with offices in Portland, Maine; Park City, Utah; and Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. He is the former editor of Golf Course News and a frequent contributor to GCM.