Emerging from the other side of a 'biblical' rain

On Aug. 17, 2021, more than 20 inches of rain fell during a two-hour flash flood that devastated Springdale. The washed out western North Carolina mountain golf resort has managed to rebuild itself

CANTON, North Carolina — Buddy Lawrence grew up on a tobacco farm in eastern North Carolina, used to surf in the Atlantic Ocean and spent nearly four decades in the golf industry along the Tar Heel coast. So, he’s seen his fair share of nasty hurricanes over the years.

When Lawrence accepted the general manager position at Springdale mountain golf resort in scenic and peaceful Haywood County — located about an hour west of Asheville in the state's western mountainous region — in 2019 he must have imagined tackling less harsh weather in the twilight of his golf career.

The struggling resort was seemingly headed in the right direction under new owners, the father and son duo of Zan and Lex West of Springdale Golf Partners LLC.   

On clear days, Springdale offers scenic views of Cold Mountain in western North Carolina.

Springdale is a beautiful golf course with a front nine that rolls through the picturesque valley of the east fork of the Pigeon River and the back nine, with an elevation of up to 3,200-feet, offering mountain views, including famous Cold Mountain. And ground was broken in May 2021 for a new clubhouse. Life was seemingly all good with a new slogan of "Relax, Recharge and Restore Your Soul."  

Golfers in and around the resort were relaxing on the afternoon of Aug. 17, 2021, as a microburst as part of the remnants of Tropical Storm Fred settled in and began pelting the area. In a matter of just two hours, an estimated 21 inches of rain fell. 

"My owner called and asked how it was going and I said 'it’s biblical' and he laughed at me," recalls Lawrence 15 months after the historic flash flood killed six people in and around the small town of Cruso. "And then he started seeing photos on the news and it was really, really bad."

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Once the rain started, Lawrence sent his golf staff home to safety. He remained behind since he lives in the community and became a first-hand witness to the devastation. For some perspective, a few of Springdale’s holes of the front nine are just a pitching wedge away from the riverbed. 

"The river was rising about a foot a minute for about 10-15 minutes," Lawrence says. "I didn't know how bad it was until I started seeing LP gas tanks and fuel oil tanks floating by, and the next thing I started seeing were clothes and dressers and furniture and I said ‘Oh my heavens.’ And then you would see an automobile go by and then pieces of a house. So I knew at that point it was really, really bad. I sort of said a little prayer and proceeded back to my house. There wasn’t much else I could do."

The flash flooding in the western North Carolina mountains was a result of Tropical Storm Fred.

Water levels in some places exceeded previous records by as much as 7 feet. Cruso was the hardest hit of several towns that sustained heavy damage.

Meanwhile, golf course superintendent Jeremy Boone was returning from Nashville, Tennessee, and would meet Lawrence the next morning to examine the extensive damage to the golf course.

"We looked at each other and said 'Where do we start?'" Boone says. "With the amount of rain we had there wasn’t a hole that didn’t have some type of damage, whether it was trees down, debris, bridges washed away; some cart paths just got washed away. All the sand in every bunker had to be replaced. Some of it is probably in Tennessee. I had logs on the golf course. We had a refrigerator on No. 5 green. We did rescue a 12-inch trout. It was in a puddle swimming back and forth on the cart path so we got a 5-gallon bucket and rescued it and threw it back in the creek."

The Atlantic Hurricane season officially ends Nov. 30, but most of the potential for storms significantly decrease this month as the waters cool off the East Coast. Only one storm in 2022 — Hurricane Ian as a deadly Category 4 — wreaked havoc off the southern Gulf Coast of Florida.

The Golf Course Superintendents Association of America does offer assistance to members for personal damage caused by natural disasters — not for golf course damage. So far, 35 members have applied for assistance from this fund from Hurricane Ian.

"We expect more in the next few weeks," GCSAA media relations manager Mike Strauss says.

But most, if not all, damage to golf courses by Mother Nature are out of pocket expenses and can be extremely costly. For example, the clean up at Springdale carried a price tag of an estimated $500,000, with an additional $200,000 in lost revenue while the course was closed for 45 days.

According to the NOAA, more than 300 hurricanes have had direct hits on the U.S. mainland since 1851, with slightly less than one-third of those categorized as "major hurricanes" of Category 3, 4 or 5. The majority of those storms have hit golf-rich Florida, approximately 120 in total, including 37 major hurricanes. 

Florida is followed by Texas, Louisiana and North Carolina — all of which have about half of Florida’s total — and typically less severity. 

All six of the course's bridges were taken out by the flooding.

"So, generally speaking, you’re averaging somewhere in the neighborhood of one major hurricane hitting somewhere on the U.S. mainland every other year," said a spokesman for the National Golf Foundation. "If that’s in Florida, which leads the nation with over 1,200 golf courses, there will certainly be a more significant impact on the golf industry. But quantifying the damage and associated costs can vary so widely, as that could be anywhere from cleanup and tree removal to replacing grasses that aren’t saltwater resistant, redoing bunkers or replacing/rebuilding infrastructure ranging from clubhouses and maintenance facilities to on-course bridges and bathrooms.

"The reality is that in some storm-prone areas you’ll have facilities that account for these unexpected weather events in annual budgeting or in surcharges in their insurance policies."

For example, Springdale lost all six of its golf course bridges, making clean-up logistics even tougher.

Officials believe a large 200-foot-by-200-foot culvert near the Blue Ridge Parkway became clogged during the storm, then burst, sending a flood of water down the mountain and into the river fork and surrounding roads.

"This area flooded in 2004 with two tropical storms that came through very slowly," Lawrence says. "And when you have a hurricane at the coast the water usually rises slowly; this was more of a catastrophic event with one big wall of water."

All 18 holes suffered some form of damage, whether it was trees down, bunkers being washed out or debris and mud covering fairways and greens.

Once opened for play nearly two months after the August 2021 storm, the West Family donated half of the profits until Dec. 25 — approximately $45,000 — to the local community.  

"You know, last August we were starting to see the fruits of our labor, things were getting so much better than they were before and the flood kind of kicked us in the teeth — it was two steps forward and then we ran backwards really, really hard," Boone says. "If it had been someone without the financial resources and the passion for what Lex wants for Springdale, these repairs could have labored on for years and years."

For weeks, Boone and his crew, with the help of members and some residents, picked up rocks that had washed onto several fairways, placing them in buckets for what was a tedious cleanup effort.

"It was heartbreaking, but it was pretty easy to put it into perspective in the big picture because six people lost their lives, people’s homes were washed away, people I knew person personally who lost their homes," Boone says. "There were more important things than the golf course so we kind of kept a low profile about what happened to the golf course because it’s a business. Nobody died and nobody couldn’t go home at night to a house that was no longer there."

Boone saved a photo from that day as a reminder of what uncontrollable force weather can play in people’s lives.

"I still have that screen shot of the radar, of the red cell right above the golf course," he says. "I kept checking it on my phone and kept checking it and it never moved; it just stayed red. Every time it rains around here now for an extended period of time people get nervous.

"I started in the golf business in 1988 and never in my 30-plus year career have I seen damage to this level. I feel for the coastal guys who may get it a whole lot more often."