Keith Kline, the golf course superintendent at Quail Run, doesn’t remember exactly what pushed him into what has become now his fourth decade of working on a golf course. He just thought the idea sounded like fun.
For a major chunk of those four decades, it has been fun. It’s hard to argue against spending your day on the golf course for a living, even if you’re not the one swinging the clubs.
Over the last 10 months though, fun wouldn’t be how Kline describes watching his course torn apart and ravaged in the historic Nebraska floods of 2019.
On the fateful morning when all hell broke loose, Kline was in the Quail Run cart shed as Columbus Public Property Director Doug Moore came to the course looking for his superintendent. Moore had been near the river watching the action to the west of Quail Run and quickly realized the 11 holes south of the levee were in real danger.
“He came in and he said, ‘You better go check. It looks like the water’s coming in from down by the river.’ From the time he drove over and found us, that probably took only 15 or 20 minutes. By the time we got up over the dike, it was full. It was 15 feet deep,” Kline remembered. “Less than an hour, or a half-hour, it was totally underwater. In that moment, I knew we were in trouble.”
That trouble included the destruction of two shelters, damage to benches, large gashes throughout fairways and greens, trees stripped of bark or completely knocked down and tons of debris and tons of sand piled up in every direction.
Although some of the character of the course remained after the flood, Quail Run mostly appeared to be a course that had been abandoned for decades.
When the cleanup finally was completed this past fall, the figures were staggering. Over 1 million yards of sand and tens of millions of gallons of water in the irrigation lake were removed, dozens of native trees and countless others that floated in were taken away and hundreds of sprinkler heads had to be scrapped.
There were automobile-sized chunks of ice that remained on the course until May when warming temperatures finally left the course dry but still piled with limbs, trees and sand.
Now, almost a year later, Quail Run is nearing the midway point of what will be a two-year resurrection. If all goes according to plan, Columbus golfers will have life back to normal in the spring of 2021.
Quail Run had been through damage before, the 1993 flood to be exact, but not to this scale. Those floodwaters came across the corner of the course, leaving sand on the sixth hole, but most of the rest of the layout south of the dike was left untouched.
This time, the destruction was much more complete and much more extreme. So extensive was the wreckage, Kline and his crew had to wait until later (almost summer) before they could get to certain parts of the course. At that point, it became about deciding what to do next.
Because Columbus had worked with the Federal Emergency Management Agency after a wind storm damaged trees on the course in 2016, City Administrator Tara Vasicek and Moore knew there was potential for federal assistance in cleanup and repair. The duo also had prior knowledge of FEMA helping out other municipal golf courses in Nebraska after natural disasters.
But that also required patience. In the immediate weeks and months following the flood, FEMA's requests poured in from across the state. Those whose livelihood was affected took precedent.
Thus, Quail Run was left waiting, unsure of what to do next. What the city was sure of was that any sort of action at the course could significantly hinder the chances for FEMA reimbursement.
"We prodded, but we didn’t really have much authority to push it or speed it up more than it already was. We just didn’t want to risk getting too far into it and having done something wrong during that process," Vasicek said. "We didn’t have any personal contact with anybody from FEMA who was consistently in Columbus. So, we were kind of in a limbo period of how much do we do? How much do we not do? Are we doing it right? Who tells us if we’re doing it right or not?"
An assessment of the damage had to be done first. Initially, it was a complicated process of contacting various areas of expertise - turf and grass, irrigation, forestry and so on - until Kline realized the best course of action was to perhaps find a golf course builder that could provide a comprehensive workup.
Landscapes Unlimited, a firm that had both played a role in the construction of Quail Run and had dealt with FEMA before in similar matters, was contacted because of those prior relationships.
Still, though the City might have initiated the process, FEMA also had to do its own assessment before any work could begin. Earning the money necessary for reimbursement meant comparing figures, matching amounts and negotiating on those numbers that disagreed.
Without that process, FEMA could easily reject any claims from the City since it had no proof other than its own word. And, again, in a region beset by destruction, a golf course was not high on the priority list.
"There are also regulations about where you move debris and environmental people have to get involved, too," Moore said. "There are so many hoops to jump through."
Normal FEMA process includes assigning a Program Delivery Manager (PDMG) who serves as the agency's representative and liaison. While Columbus was waiting, the City discovered that among thousands of cases, only a couple hundred PDMGs were available to handle that workload.
Thus, while many Columbus residents wondered why nothing was being done at the course all summer long, Vasicek said the only thing that could be done was wait.
"There were so many things we needed clear answers on before we got going," Vasicek said. "But we’ve got answers now, we did the debris cleanup and saved a boatload of money."
Cleanup was completed on Sept. 14 after about two months of work. The City rented additional heavy equipment from an Omaha/Kansas City-based company and began the process of actually removing the damage. Up until then, the most Kline and his crew could do was pile up the debris and the sand.
"That’s when we had all the departments coming down and helping us. We rented heavy equipment to remove trees and sand. The street department, parks, water, sewer, pretty much anyone who wanted to work could come down and drive a truck," Kline said. "There was so much sand and trees that washed in, trees that washed out, trees that fell down. So, the street department, their regular tree crews came down and did all that big tree removal for us, cutting it and hauling it away."
Almost all of the sand, more than a million tons, was returned to the fourth hole, which had since become just that, one giant hole.
"I understand, the golfers and the citizens are going, ‘Why is this taking so long?’ Most of them, the week after the flood, thought once we moved the ice we’d be ready to roll," Moore said. "The people who work for me, they want to do their job, they want to have a nice golf course and they want to get it going the way it was."
But cleanup is only half the process, and likely less, compared to what comes next.
At the July 15 Committee of the Whole meeting, Columbus Mayor Jim Bulkley laid out three possible futures for Quail Run. The first was to leave it as is and redesign the front as a permanent nine-hole layout. The second was to repair as close to the original as possible. Third would move all of the course north of the levee.
Bulkley supported 18-hole public golf in Columbus and ultimately supported the second option because the price tag was $4 million less than the third. In working with FEMA, Columbus discovered that the agency would potentially cover 75 percent of the process, or about $1.5 million if all of the details in specific categories of repair were agreed to and completed.
The city council voted and selected the mayor's proposal. Columbus then had to find a golf course engineer. Kline and his crew can maintain the grounds, but in terms of laying down irrigation pipe, shaping bunkers and course layout and reconstructing the irrigation lake, though capable, in-house work would have been much more time-consuming and less efficient than handing it over to experts.
The city sought bids from course builders. A committee including Vasicek, Moore and some city council members reviewed the bids and came back around to Landscapes Unlimited.
"It’s a qualification-based selection process," Vasicek said. "There isn’t a cost in the selection process. We pick them based on their experience, their past performance and things of that nature."
Of course, Landscapes Unlimited will again have to match FEMA before any work can commence. But at this point, all Landscapes Unlimited is approved for is to submit is estimates for reconstruction.
"Once we get the green light from FEMA, we’ll contract with them to do all that work," Vasicek said. "Right now we’re at the phase where Landscapes Unlimited is working to get detailed estimates for the irrigation and grading, sidewalks, all that stuff for FEMA to sign off and agree to based on their inspections."
The belief is that the work can be completed in time for seeding in the fall and the course back to normal once everything begins growing again in the spring of 2021.
FEMA will cover the costs in reimbursement based on where damage and repair fall among seven categories. Some of those categories (debris removal, roads and bridges, buildings and equipment, just to name a few) have already been completed and the city was paid back by FEMA for the cash it moved out of the general fund to cover the cost.
That will continue to be the practice going forward. Columbus has already been paid back several times by FEMA and has no reason to believe that won't continue.
"There may be a point where we have to cash flow and reimburse ourselves with the money that comes from FEMA," Vasicek said. "It may take some time, but we're not worried about receiving the money."
As far as other elements of the mayor's proposal for the future of golf in Columbus, specifically, eliminating Van Berg and inserting a management company in place at Quail Run, none of that will come into play until Quail Run is back up and running. After golfers are back teeing off and putting on the 11 holes near the Loup River, the City Council will begin debating the merits for more changes to golf in Columbus.
"If the council decides it wants to continue to have Van Berg and Quail, we’ll continue to operate them as best as we can," Vasicek said. "If the council decides that’s too many holes for Columbus, and they choose to do something different, we’ll do that work."
Nate Tenopir is the sports editor of The Columbus Telegram. Reach him via email at email@example.com.
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