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The Greenbrier floods

16 Min Read

Long Form

    Written by Helen Ross @helen_pgatour

    White Sulphur strong

    Bubba Watson and his wife, Angie, were fly fishing with some friends from Scottsdale when the downpour started that Thursday morning.

    Soon, it was raining so hard there was nothing to do but head back to their home at The Greenbrier in the scenic West Virginia mountains and hunker down.

    With outdoor activities out of the question, the Watson’s friends decided to go down to the resort hotel and tour “The Bunker,” the once top-secret emergency bomb shelter for members of Congress built there during the height of the Cold War.

    When the tour was over, the phone rang. Seems the road back to the Watson’s house was closed so their friends wondered if Bubba could come and get them in his golf cart.

    Luckily, cooler heads prevailed.

    “They talked to somebody at the pro shop down there at the hotel, and they said, no, no, you don’t understand. There’s water everywhere,” Angie recalls. “Everything is completely flooded.”

    A look out their window confirmed those words. The Watson’s home, nestled on 11 acres in the lush Allegheny Mountains, overlooks the Snead Course at the sprawling resort’s exclusive Sporting Club.

    “We could see that the water was drastically rising, and this is a matter of 45 minutes,” Angie says. “We went from seeing most of the holes on the Snead Course to barely seeing maybe half an acre of grass.

    “It was completely covered with water.”

    Even now, Bubba is amazed at how fast the land down in the valley flooded.

    “It was the quickest, wildest, craziest thing I’ve ever seen,” he says grimly.

    The date was June 23, 2016. In exactly two weeks, Danny Lee was set to defend his first PGA TOUR title at The Greenbrier Classic. Bleachers and those trademark green-and-white striped concession tents had already been erected all over the Old White TPC.

    But Mother Nature changed everything.

    About the time the Watsons and their friends ended that fly-fishing trip, Burt Baine, who is the vice president of golf at The Greenbrier, and his staff had decided to close all five courses at the resort because of the torrential rain.

    By noon, Howard’s Creek, which meanders through the town of White Sulphur Springs, as well as the resort, had escaped its banks. The Snead, Greenbrier and Meadows courses as well as the historic Old White, were completely inundated by water four hours later.

    “We had vehicles and parts of houses and things of all sorts all over the golf courses,” Baine recalls. “They described it as a one-in-a-thousand-year event.”

    The relentless rain that pelted White Sulphur Springs as two weather systems collided and stalled just north of town was bad enough. A total of 11 inches fell in just five-and-a-half hours that day.

    Exacerbating the situation, though, was the runoff from the Allegheny Mountains that surround the village of 2,500. When the water got to White Sulphur Springs there was nowhere for it – or the residents -- to go.

    One of the iconic photos of that day was of a burning house being swept away by the raging waters of Howard’s Creek. Other homes lodged under bridges. People huddled in attics and on the second floors of the ones that remained fastened to their foundations.

    “You hear stories of people getting stranded (in storms) and you think, well, why didn’t they leave? Why didn’t they do something?” Angie says. “But it just happened so quick.

    “These people didn’t have time to think.”

    Angie’s husband, the two-time Masters champ, was stunned by what he saw. The hurricanes he’d weathered in Florida were nothing compared this cruel and punishing storm.

    “The best way to say it, the whole time was chaos,” Bubba says. “It was destruction. I’ve never been through anything that bad.”

    The previous high water level, measured at the 15th hole on the Old White, was 8 feet from torrential rains back in 1915. This cataclysmic flood eclipsed that by 5 feet.

    “We got significant rain here (at the resort),” Baine recalls. “Roofs failed, gutters failed, water was coming down through chandeliers, light fixtures and elevator shafts.

    “But it was made worse by the fact that we’re in a drainage area so we had a lot of water coming down on us, and a lot of water coming from north of us.”

    It was, sadly, the perfect storm.

    By Thursday night, the governor of West Virginia had declared 44 counties disaster areas. Jim Justice, the billionaire coal mining magnate who owns The Greenbrier, opened the doors of a resort that has hosted 26 presidents to 300 lost souls who had been displaced by the raging water. The Red Cross, FEMA, Samaritan’s Purse and other relief organizations mobilized and headed to the hardest-hit areas.

    Baine spent most of that Thursday afternoon watching helplessly on the porch behind the golf shop as the water rose. Some of his staff went out in their cars and trucks to rescue people until the roads became impassable. Small boats were used to get to families trapped in homes that were fast becoming islands.

    The final death toll was 23, including 15 in Greenbrier County alone. Among those, a 14-year-old boy whose body was found resting against a maintenance shed on the resort grounds, and an elderly man pulled from one of the lakes there.

    “The sound of the rushing water was eerie,” Angie recalls. “… There were headlights that we could see shining up the mountain the whole night, and you just couldn’t sleep because you could tell they were starting to flicker and some of those headlights were getting completely submerged.

    “The whole night was surreal.”

    Within 24 hours, the deepest water had receded as it rushed downstream. What remained was a path of destruction that Angie Watson compared to a war zone. Remnants of families’ lives were strewn everywhere, willy-nilly, in the water’s wake.

    “It literally looked like a bomb had gone off,” she says.

    “Just sadness all over the place,” Bubba agrees.

    The golf courses at The Greenbrier were covered with mud and silt, and there was standing water everywhere. Greens were destroyed, and the sand in the bunkers washed away by the rushing waters.

    And the debris on the course left behind by the freak storm was significant, as well as a sad reminder of the tragedy.

    “Automobiles, refrigerators, washing machines, riding lawnmowers, fish, dead animals, raccoons, dogs, cats, you name it,” he recalls.

    But Baine never doubted the Old White and its sister courses could be brought back to life. He just didn’t know the timetable – or the price tag.

    “I just knew that there was nothing that couldn’t be fixed, it would just kind of take a while and cost a lot,” he says. “So that’s what we started trying to get our arms around.”

    And there was no way a PGA TOUR event could be held. The Greenbrier Classic, such a source of pride in an area not used to hosting big-time events, was canceled a week after the flood.

    Justice put what turned out to be a successful campaign for governor on hold for several weeks. The Neighbors Loving Neighbors program he had launched earlier to help the needy in West Virginia was refocused on the victims of the flood. It is now the official charity of the 2017 Greenbrier Classic.

    Donations quickly poured in – including $250,000 from Bubba and Angie Watson and $100,000 from the PGA TOUR. Phil Mickelson, who, like Watson is an ambassador for the Greenbrier, also contributed along with Keegan Bradley, NBA Hall of Famer Jerry West, Charles Barkley, Bo Jackson and Lee Trevino, the head pro emeritus at the resort. The total eventually exceeded $4 million.

    Bubba said he and his wife hoped their donation would help raise awareness of the tragedy.

    “These are people that I see every day at the hotel, at the golf courses working, and now they have nothing,” he said when he announced the charitable gift the week after the flood.

    “It’s very devastating but it grows a community together.”

    Angie says the donation shows the “generosity of my husband's heart.

    “He was the one that decided the number, and I was obviously on board with the donation just because of the impact that the state has had on me through all of this,” she explains.

    Like everyone else in the area, the Watsons, who have two young children, lost power for about five days. They boiled water to drink and cooked on a grill outside.

    “It was amazing, trying to cook bacon and everything in the morning so the kids didn’t feel like anything was going on,” Bubba says. “We tried to make it as normal as possible. We just said we were cooking out all the time.”

    Bubba eventually left to get ready to play in the World Golf Championships-Bridgestone Invitational, which was the next event on the PGA TOUR calendar. Angie wanted to join the relief effort so she called Habibi Mamone, who is the tournament director of The Greenbrier Classic.

    For a few days, the work was as simple as delivering supplies like canned goods and bottled water. She took Bubba’s truck because some of the roads were so bad smaller cars couldn’t navigate them. Her son, Caleb, who was 4 at the time, went with her.

    “It was a good lesson for him to see all these people in need and to see all these kids with nothing, with just the clothes on their back,” Angie says.

    The manual labor began a few days later. Angie started working with Samaritan’s Purse, helping to gut damaged houses in downtown White Sulphur Springs. Some of the homes had absorbed more than 6 feet of water so they needed to strip the soggy drywall and insulation in preparation for the rebuilding to come.

    “To just see these people that have lost everything, and in most cases the families were there helping, and you just want to do more for them,” Angie says. “They appreciated us being there so much.

    “But I swear I couldn't get the smell out of my mind. … Obviously, there's all kinds of problems with drainage and sewage and all that in a catastrophe, and I couldn't stop thinking about that smell for months after that, just to think that the homes that these people lived in were in that condition, and they lost everything, most of them.”

    One day when she was down in the village, Angie saw a woman sitting, slumped forward, on her front porch, her head between her legs. Angie walked up and asked how she was doing. The woman understandably didn’t have much to say.

    “I asked her if I could pray with her, and I held her hand,” Angie says. “There were few words exchanged between the two of us, but I felt like there was more said than actually was said, if that makes sense.”

    Angie was also profoundly moved by one man she met through her work with Samaritan’s Purse. He was a widower and she and about eight other volunteers were there to help him with reclaim his home – and his life.

    “We showed up, and he's got coffee made for us,” she recalls. “He pretty much lost everything, and he was worried about hospitality for us in this house that had 5 feet of water in it.

    “To me that had such an impact because I don't know if the same thing happened to us I hope and pray that I would treat people the same way.”

    Like his neighbors, Baine, who lives about three blocks from Howard’s Creek, didn’t get much sleep that Thursday night. He stayed up, flashlight in hand, and watched as the water encroached on his home but thankfully started to recede before doing any damage.

    Baine, who has worked at the resort for seven years, describes seeing the golf courses the next morning as “mind-boggling.” Three of the golf courses were “virtually destroyed,” and the fourth, the Greenbrier, was eventually reduced to 12 holes for the 2017 season before Mickelson begins a redesign later this summer.

    “The first day it's like surreal, and then it starts to sink in that you're not going to be playing golf for a while on these courses, and we're essentially out of business,” Baine said. “… I knew it was going to be a long process of reconstruction, and we were anxious to get started, but we knew it was going to take a while. And it has. We’re still working.”

    Cleaning up the debris took several weeks. Volunteers came to help Baine and his staff. But they had to hire outside companies with more resources to get the job done.

    “When you're trying to get things like pickup trucks and refrigerators off the golf course, you need loaders and trucks and things of that sort,” Baine explains. “So that took a while before we could even begin construction.”

    And once that was green-lighted, Justice made it clear he didn’t want a patch job done. On the Old White, for example, seven greens needed to be completely rebuilt. But Justice didn’t want 11 old greens and seven new ones. He wanted the Old White brought back to the way C.B. MacDonald intended when he designed the course in 1914.

    “He wanted all the greens done, he wanted all the bunkers done, he wanted all the fairways done,” Baine said. “He wanted it to match. He wanted it to, when it opened, be consistent and be restored.

    “In some ways it's an American treasure for golfers and golf course architects because it's 103 years old, and it's the only C.B. McDonald course that can be accessed by the public. …

    “We knew that we kind of have like a responsibility, I guess, to restore it, and so once that decision was made, that set out a certain path for construction that was going to be more long term.”

    Toward that end, Justice hired Keith Foster to oversee the restoration. He also did a re-routing of the Meadows course, which was designed by Seth Raynor in 1923, to minimize the risk if there are ever floods in the future. And Tom Fazio was brought in to oversee the restoration of his Snead Course.

    Foster is an architect who specializes in restoring older golf courses built by the likes of MacDonald, Raynor, A.W. Tillinghast and Donald Ross. Although there are few routing plans from that era, the designers occasionally would leave sketches of green complexes for future reference. The Greenbrier also was fortunate to have an archive of photos of the Old White from the 1920s and ‘30s, as well as a selection of aerial shots taken in the ensuing decades.

    “So rather than him coming in and trying to redesign the holes, he came in and tried to restore the holes to what he thought McDonald and Raynor would have done,” Baine says. “He can do that because he's studied their work and all their courses, he's taken photos.

    “So it was a restoration based on photographic documentation and expertise.”

    Baine gives yeoman’s credit to Kelly Shumate, who is the director of golf course maintenance at The Greenbrier. He says there is no way to understand what Shumate and his staff went through to get the golf course ready for its debut this week when the PGA TOUR returns.

    There were days everyone had to wear respirator masks because the silt left on the golf course had baked in the summer heat and turned into the consistency of talcum power.

    “These guys and myself were covered head to foot with dirt day after day after day,” Baine says. “It was quite a process.”

    Millions of cubic yards of sod – “the big roll stuff, the kind that comes off in a huge roll like a carpet,” Baine says -- were laid on the course, sometimes as much as eight trucks a day. Baine doesn’t have an exact number but he plans on calculating it someday.

    When life settles down, that is.

    The changes to the Old White are in general nuanced, but there are some significant ones, too. The 14th has new bunkers down the left side as well as one behind the green. The 16th will now play more like a true “cape” with the challenging tee shot that used to be over Swan Lake now played parallel to the water.

    Baine says he’s particularly interested to see how the caddies prepare Monday-Wednesday.

    Every tee has been reassigned to improve playability. All the green contours are different, as are the grasses – V-8 bentgrass on the putting surfaces and T-1 bentgrass on the fairways. Many of the bunkers have been moved closer to the putting surfaces, the faces redone with maintained tall fescue and 3,000 tons of new sand added. Trees were lost in the flood, as well.

    “I think you'll see a golf course that I think will surprise the professionals,” Baine says. “My sense is that the pros think, okay, they patched it up so that we can play the tournament, and they're expecting to see the golf course that was here before patched up.

    “And when they go down the first fairway, it's going to dawn on them that this golf course is not here anymore, it's a new golf course.”

    Unless Justice played the Old White last week, as is his custom before the tournament, the PGA TOUR pros will be the first to tee off on what Baine thinks will be now be in the conversation of the best five or six MacDonald courses in the world. Members will get their first opportunity next Monday, playing the same pins as in the final round.

    The Snead Course, meanwhile, has been open now for nearly a month. And the Meadows, which had the most significant damage, likely will reopen sometime next week.

    Preparations for the sixth Greenbrier Classic halted on June 23 to remember the victims of the flood, one of whom was an employee of the resort and two of whom were from another’s family.

    “We got together and had some moments of silence and reflected back on what we went through, and then went back to work,” Baine says.

    There may be some wet paint here and there, he likes to tell people, but the course, the resort and the community will be ready.

    “Mr. Justice says the scars of that day will be with us forever,” Baine says. “We will never forget the loss of our neighbors, lives and property, but we do have to move on, and I think the tournament this year will be a big moment for this whole community because they will be able to say, okay, we did it. We're back. We're back on the PGA TOUR.

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