WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, WV. - There was rain in the forecast a year ago in West Virginia, but nobody expected the severity of the eventual storm.
It started to sprinkle, evolved into a downpour, and escalated from there. Soon rain became a deluge, and as the day went into the night the situation only got worse. Torrential rains savaged and caused flash flooding of streams, with things only getting worse from there.
Down at the Greenbrier Sporting Club Bubba Watson was at his vacation home for a brief respite of PGA Tour play, planning some fly fishing and downtime with his family. That expectation was cancelled as Mother Nature had a really bad day last June 24.
“I’ve lived through hurricanes,” said Watson when the storm subsided. He remembered those hurricanes that hit the Florida panhandle. “I have to say none of those hurricanes hit with the power and intensity of this storm, I never saw anything like this.”
The storms devastated the area, ravaging homes, businesses and upending lives. Homes were captured floating down rivers in what was called a 1000-year storm. Streams overflowed, roads were turned into raging rivers, storm waters spread like a virus and destroyed everything in their path. Topping the disaster was a tornado.
Low lying fields became lakes, terror was in the minds of residents as possessions were gone and years of memories erased.
“The storm hit us with everything but the kitchen sink,” explained Greenbrier Resort Pro-Emeritus and golf Hall of Fame member Lee Trevino. “Heck, we have pictures of houses floating in the streets, of cars and refrigerators floating down rivers. This area (White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia where the Greenbrier Resort is located) was devastated. It ravaged the infrastructure, it ruined businesses, and there was loss of homes and lives. I mean, storm water was measured in feet, not inches. We were wondering if Noah was going to show up at some point."
The aftermath of the storm saw 23 people killed in the West Virginia flooding, more than 1,200 homes and 100 businesses destroyed and more than 100 million dollars in losses to the area.
“I visited Louisiana after (Hurricane) Katrina,” commented Phil Mickelson, “and the devastation to this area was on that kind of scale considering the impact on the communities.”
The historic Greenbrier Resort was officially closed for business purposes but used for emergency housing as the weather’s devastating winds and rains wreaked havoc with the area.
The storm was clearly catastrophic. More than 40 counties were declared disaster areas.
Along the way, and merely a footnote to the storm losses, was the cancellation of the 2016 Greenbrier Classic, the PGA Tour event that generates millions of dollars of much needed economic value to the area.
Today, the Greenbrier County and surrounding areas are during an economic rebound, as people from all over have banded together to help with the area’s new look.
The Greenbrier Resort remains as an economic engine, and the 2017 version of the Greenbrier Classic is expected to provide a springboard step along the way to the area’s rebirth. A year ago the Greenbrier Resort served as emergency housing for displaced homeowners who saw their lives upended. Owner Jim Justice, who later in the year was elected Governor of the state of West Virginia, insisted that the Greenbrier Resort be a keystone to the after-storm actions.
“Our area was devastated, and we attempted to do whatever we could to help out the community,” explained Dr. Jill Justice, who now serves as CEO of the Greenbrier after her husband’s election to Governor. “As we look ahead to the golf tournament, we see it as an important step in normalcy. We will make it happen, as the entire community has rallied together.”
In the aftermath of the storms the entire area and friends from throughout the United States offered aid. One local program supported by the Greenbrier, Neighbors Loving Neighbors, has helped the area with its rebuilding efforts and with food drives.
“Over the last year we’ve been instrumental in the rebuilding of more than 600 homes,” explained Bibi Mamone, the Greenbrier Classic’s executive tournament director. “The NLN program has been such a success, providing support to area residents effected by the flooding, rebuilding of houses and community buildings (e.g., gymnasiums) and helping in any way we can.”
Support from The Greenbrier and the PGA Tour family has been quick and full of impact.
Donations of canned food gets one tickets to the 2017 event, following the footsteps of what was to be a hallmark of the 2016 event. For free ticket information, visit the Greenbrier Classic web site at http://www.greenbrierclassic.com/Tickets/Weekly-Badges/Weekly-Grounds
The Greenbrier golf courses – the Old White TPC designed by Charles Blair Macdonald, the Seth Raynor designed Greenbrier, and The Meadows – were decimated by the floods.
“The courses at the resort were essentially washed away. I was here with my son, and the rain started coming down in torrents, I mean, you could not see the trees on the other side of the parking lot it was coming down so hard,” remembered Trevino. “Mr. Justice made the decision to keep the courses closed after the storms and not simply do a patchwork fix on them. He wanted the courses to return in spectacular style.”
Noted golf course restoration guru Keith Foster was brought in to return the Old White TPC to MacDonald’s vision, while Mickelson will rework the Greenbrier course beginning this summer. That course was site of the 1979 Ryder Cup. The Meadows course will be updated and redesigned with the addition of 20 lots to the Greenbrier complex in the last year.
“Mr. Justice wanted, no, he demanded that we not endorse a band aid approach to the rework of the Old White TPC Course,” commented Greenbrier VP of Golf Burt Baine. “That was the correct decision. No stone was to be unturned. His orders were to do things the right way. Keith Foster took those marching orders and made sure it happened.”
On day one after the storm subsided, the Greenbrier Resort team understood the severity of the situation and plans began on how to right the ship.
“We knew how bad it was, and we committed to making all right again,” said Trevino. “Everyone got together and each aspect of the situation was divided into smaller pieces. Everyone played a part. What can we do here, what can be done there? How can we make the Greenbrier Resort a spectacular destination once again? There was no one thing, it was all encompassing. This is one hell of a team.”
All acknowledged that a strong Greenbrier Resort would be a strong centerpiece to the economic rebirth of the area. And with that knowledge, the idea that the golf courses be brought back imperative with a keen eye toward contesting a PGA Tour event on schedule a year later.
Mickelson says he’s circled the tournament’s July 3-9 dates on his playing schedule, and says he’s been lobbying other PGA Tour stalwarts to join him. Bubba Watson, 2015 “defending” champion Danny Lee, Kevin Kisner, John Daly and other top names will be in the field. As many as nine players with a major championship on their resume are expected to compete.
“I so much want to visit the Greenbrier and compete in the 2017 event,” explained Daly at the PGA Tour Merchandise Show in January. “I mean, wow, what that area had to go through a year ago with the storms. It was devastating. Anything we can do to help, we will.”
“The response I’ve been receiving has been tremendous,” added Mickelson, on site this week. “There is a strong association with the Tour, and I know there are scores of players who want to make sure this event shows the Greenbrier Classic and this area is back. We expect some real star power at the Classic.”
Tournament week will feature everything from its annual Concert Series to a Kids Zone, from autograph possibilities to the can’t miss “Learn with Lee” program put on by Trevino. Tributes to the first responders, people involved in the rebuilding of the area and friends will be front a center. And the PGA Tour players are expected to delight their fans with strong play.
It’s hard to imagine what has transpired in the last year, but the Greenbrier Classic is back.
“This place was beaten up, I mean, Mother Nature unleashed her fury,” explained Trevino. Pointing toward the flagpole near the golf clubhouse, he mentioned how high the water was at one point. “It rained a river. But while this place was down, you couldn’t count it out. We’re back!”
“Lee hit the nail on the head,” added Mickelson, who has been tasked with a redesign of what has been reduced by last year’s storm to a 12-hole course into a playable championship 18 over the next year. “The Greenbrier Resort is back, wonderful as ever and ready for action.”
It has been a tough period for the area, but hard work and perseverance has brought the area back.
And the local community is making its way back in tandem with the resort rebirth.