As many people will surely be aware, Edgbaston became the centre of the interest for UK weather watchers during the last week of May, as flash floods hit the area. In this online exclusive article, David and John Lawrence spoke to Pitchcare about the damage caused and the extensive clean up operation.
Grounds Manager Dave Lawrence, and Assistant Grounds Manager John Lawrence, taking stock (and a soak) during Sunday's storm!
On the evening of Sunday 27th May, more than 70mm of rain fell within the space of an hour (over 80mm in total for that day), which followed an inch of rain only two days prior. The result led to widespread flash flooding across the West Midlands, causing flooding to homes, damage to infrastructure and tragically loss of life.
While a tennis tournament is insignificant in comparison to some of the events seen not too far from us, indisputably the weather has had an impact on how we manage our eight championship quality grass tennis courts, as well as the other surfaces we have on site and the surrounding grounds. May itself has come off the back of a challenging late-winter and spring, generally. Whilst May was the wettest we've seen since arriving at the club (133.8mm of rain for the month), it has followed a start to the year which has been characterised by regular dumping's of snow, freezing temperatures and regular rainfall. All of this has created major challenges for turf managers up and down the country. Despite this we have a set deadline to work to; our tournament, The Nature Valley Classic Birmingham, begins on the 16th of June (though in reality we'll have players arriving for practice up to a week before that). No matter the challenges we face, the courts will come in to play on that date - it is our job to ensure they are ready, which is a challenge we love.
Admittedly we weren't expecting the amount of rain we ended up receiving on the Sunday evening, but at this time of year we always err on the side of caution with the weather forecasts. We want to closely control the moisture levels within the soil profiles of our courts to ensure that when our tournament starts the playing characteristics are at their optimum. Since arriving at Edgbaston, we've implemented a huge testing programme, monitoring primarily moisture in the soil, and its relationship with surface firmness. The result of this is that we have gotten to a point where we are able to control the way our courts play by understanding how our irrigation inputs impact on the playing characteristics of the surfaces. However, this means we like to be very prescriptive with how much water gets on to the courts, and so anything more than a light passing shower tends to lead to us getting the covers on to protect the courts, even if these means we later have to take the covers back off to manually irrigate the courts ourselves.
Left: Rain covers in place ahead of Sunday's storm. RIght: Torrents of water cascading down the stairs to our Number One court
We already had a weather warning hanging over us for Sunday evening (May 27th) and as such we had initiated a plan to get the tournament rain covers on to the courts ahead of any potential downpours as early as possible. Therefore, we had the whole team in on the Saturday to get the covers pulled on to courts, clipped in place and inflated. While the primary aim of covering the courts was on this occasion to keep them dry, there is always a fringe benefit of warming the soil profile up to encourage some growth, and to germinate any seed that may be underneath at the time. For that reason, prior to pulling the covers on that morning, we took the decision to overseed a couple of the courts which we felt could do with a little bit of a 'thickening up.' In addition, we carried out some localised seeding across a couple more courts to fill in a few patches; nothing major, but as self-confessed perfectionists any blemish we see will always be scrutinised by ourselves until we are happy, though by then we'll normally find something else to try and improve!
With the covers in place, it became a case of sitting tight, and waiting to see what hand we were dealt. The covers remained inflated over the Saturday night and in to Sunday to allow some 'green housing' of the courts to get the newly sown seed to germinate more quickly. This requires staff to work overnight to monitor the air pressure within the covers; we won't be very popular if we burst them! However, the good this does for the grass sward means it is a more than worthwhile practice.
Sunday morning arrived, and apart from some fairly low-key passing showers, there was little to report in relation to the weather. It was certainly fairly gloomy for most of the day, though ironically the brightest period was right before flash flooding, but nothing that would have led to the writing of this article!
Just after 4.00pm however, the heavens opened; this was the point at which over 70mm of rain was deposited on us in the space of an hour. We had four staff on the ground at this point, though due to the frequent lightning strikes we spent much of the storm itself sheltered in our Centre Court tunnel. The upside of this was that we were able to continue to monitor the match court rain covers, which were still inflated and dealing with the rainfall as well as could be expected. In fact we managed to keep four of the five inflated for the duration of the storm, and in fact in to Monday morning. The only casualty was the cover for our Number One court, for which we had to cut the electric supply. The covers are inflated using specialist high-power fans, a bit like a bouncy castle fan. However with the surface water flooding down the hill, and adjacent staircase from the Priory Road, the fan ended up under water to the point we had to cut the electric for safety!
Left: A flooded Priory Road and a section of the collapsed wall. Right: Proof that woodchip can float a long way!
The fact that the water was deep enough to submerge one of the court fans is, in a sort of perverse way, quite impressive! The four outside match courts are surrounded by substantial perimeter drainage, some of which is a metre deep, so it takes a substantial storm to fill them up. Unbelievably, the amount of rain water pouring through the site managed this!
Once the lightning strikes had ceded, we began to make our way out to start to get an idea of what we were actually dealing within terms of damage, not just to the grass courts, but also to our other playing surfaces, our grounds and the surrounding infrastructure. One of the issues we needed to assess was the impact the flooding could have on the build for the Nature Valley Classic, which had already started with the construction of the temporary stands. Indeed having made our way up the Priory Road we discovered a potential major problem. The wall with demarcated the boundary of the Priory Golf Club and the Priory Road had collapsed. The wall had stood at around six foot, but unfortunately the sheer volume of water flowing into it meant that eventually, it simply fell over, in the end over a distance of around seventy-five metres. This led to the closure of the road that evening and left us with a potential headache getting delivery vehicles on to site.
We also had to assess the impact the volume of water had had on the grounds in general. As we've become accustomed to during previous bouts of heavy rainfall, we soon discovered we would be clearing woodchip from all over the place. While it works wonderfully as an ornamental dressing in the dry, heavy rain does bring about the chance to prove that if floats! In fairness, woodchip would not be the only debris we could have to clear. We found plenty of silt, small stones, litter and anything else that would float scattered all over the grounds. In fact, we even found some of the bricks from the collapsed wall on Priory Road on the pathways around our grass match courts!
Additionally, we needed to view the potential damage to our other court surfaces. We've recently had some courts refurbished by Courtstall Services, and these courts (Artificial clay and artificial grass) coped really well, aside from the need to do a bit of drag matting the following morning to redistribute some of the infill that had pooled due to the volume of rainfall. However, some of our other courts did not fare so well.
Left: Artificial courts, where the carpet had floated out of place RIght: Even our indoor courts couldn't be sheltered fully from the storm!
Our three artificial grass courts on the Priory School grounds, for example, had been submerged to the point that the carpet had floated in places. As the water level receded the carpet dropped back down, but unfortunately not in to its correct position. The carpet would need to be pulled taught to get the creases back out of the carpet, before infill that had washed away could be replenished and redistributed.
We also discovered that the sheer volume of rainfall had led to a sizable ingress in to our Indoor Tennis Centre courts. While the drainage on the roofs of the building, as well as around the outside is substantial and well maintained by the clubs Operations team, the storm had brought to much water for it to cope with. These courts would need drying quickly, as we were due to commence the building of our indoor player's village in one of the tennis halls the following morning, whilst also needing to accommodate member's bookings in the other.
As you may have noticed, the one area we weren't able to immediately assess was the condition of the grass tennis courts. In truth, we were pretty certain they must have gotten flooded. While we'd managed to keep the covers inflated, for the most part, the fact that the court perimeter drains had overflowed meant we were fairly sure water would have gotten underneath the covers. For that reason, we opted to leave the covers inflated to allow any surface water to drain, and planned to uncover the courts the following day to assess the situation.
In readiness for what we assumed would be some very wet courts, on the Sunday evening we got in touch with Simon Holland from Campey Turfcare to try and arrange the use of an Air2G2 machine, as we felt this would be the best way to help get the excess water through the profile of the courts as quickly as possible. To Simons credit we heard back the same evening, and by the following morning, a plan was in place to get a machine to us for the Tuesday morning.
Left: Air2G2 in use Right: Debris piled next to our number 1 court
In the meantime, our attention needed to turn to getting the site back operational as quickly as possible. A plan was thrashed out quickly, and we set about getting the site cleared overnight, and into the following day. Our indoor courts for example, were cleared by squeegeeing the bulk of the standing water out of the fire doors, before we utilised our wet cleaner to 'hoover up' any remaining excess moisture. Once this process was completed we would only need a drying period of about two hours before the courts would be back in use.
We also needed to clear pathways of debris around the site to make them safe and accessible. Sadly, we don't have access to a road sweeper, or a similar machine, so we relied on lots of brooms, shovels and good hard graft to clear the debris manually. In fairness this was a big team effort, with members of our team working alongside our colleagues in the clubs Operations Team to make the site safe and accessible ready for the following morning.
We devoted time to making sure our artificial surfaces were playable too. Courts on site while not badly damaged were drag matted to redistribute infill. However, the Priory School artificial grass courts required greater attention. In the end we settled on a plan of lining up as many staff as we could gather and shuffling across the courts in unison to move the ripples and creases out the of the carpet to the edge of the courts. Thought a little primitive, and possible very unorthodox, the method was incredibly effective. Once the carpet was re-flattened blowers were used to redistribute what infill remained, before a top up and a drag mat to fully re-settle the courts.
A plan was also put in place to deal with the restricted access to the Priory Road end of our site. Fortunately, we still had access through one of the two gates at that end of the site, though not the one we normally use for the tournament build. Plans were put in place and communicated to contractors to switch the access route until the fallen wall had been cleared from Priory Road, in order that the build for the tournament could continue to plan and on time.
POGO in use on Centre Court, under the rain covers
The final piece of the puzzle then, was to inspect the grass courts to assess the damage and come up with a plan to recover the situation in time for the start of our tournament, the Nature Valley Classic. The covers were removed the following morning, Monday 29th May, at around 10.00am, once we were happy that the club was safe, accessible and operational. What we discovered as a fraction of the potential impact we expected. While some water had gotten under the covers, and dragged a considerable amount of debris with it, either there had been nowhere near the amount we anticipated, or the decision to leave the covers inflated overnight had allowed it to drain away significantly.
We agreed a course of action to get things back to business as usual, as quickly as possible. As each cover was removed blowers were utilised behind to literally blow the debris off the court surface, much of which was woodchip, which as we mentioned earlier, had again proven its ability to float! The courts were then immediately mown, as they were overdue a topping after so long under cover. After a mow the courts were then tested using our normal testing equipment, a Fieldscout moisture metre which we use to measure Volumetric Moisture Content, and a Clegg Hammer to record surface hardness.
On a bit of a tangent from all of this, we also tested the courts with a POGO TurfPro probe, which we are currently trialling for Maxwell Amenity/Pitchcare. By chance we had already agreed to have a play with the kit this year to see how well it would work in tennis, and to see if it would fit in to our current portfolio of agronomy kit. The big benefit for us with the POGO is that we are able to map all our readings using the inbuilt GPS unit. With our current equipment everything is recorded on a paper grid system, which has been effective, but is also time consuming when trying to generate reports. The POGO has allowed us to take a huge range of readings and map them on the POGO TurfPro app, which we can then pick up on our desktop PC, tablets or mobile phones. This means that we can access all of our data, and the associated reports out on site and make decisions based on this. The app also has the capability to record other custom data, which means we have been able to input the data from our current kit with the readings the POGO probe takes.
Left: Less than a week later Right: Business as usual
The unusual, if lucky, coincidence that we were trialling the POGO meant that we very quickly got a view on our courts that they really hadn't been badly affected. There had been some water ingress around the perimeters, though nowhere near the playing surfaces, and if anything, the time spent under the covers had actually helped with growth and germination. We decided in the end to use the Air Injector on the Tuesday around the perimeter of the four outside match courts which to help drain away any excess moisture in the profile, as well as the provide a buffer should anymore heavy rainfall come in. We took the decision not to use the machine on our Centre Court, as it simply did not need it. No water at all had made it underneath the cover on there, and so there was no major benefit to be gained from its use on there.
We did however go right over our practice courts with the Air2G2 to help with the drying process. Unfortunately, our practice courts are not a bespoke construction; there is no perimeter concrete ring beam, sub-level drainage or buffer of any sort between the courts and the surrounding land. As such they are massively affected by changes in the water table. We felt, therefore, that the use of the Air Injector would help to dry the top of the profile ahead of the tournament, which would have a massively beneficial effect on the playing characteristics of the courts. Ultimately, we need them to dry to the same sort of level that our match courts do; there's no point practicing on a court that doesn't play the same as a match court, so we aim to produce like-for-like surfaces! The early indications from our subsequent court testing are that the courts are drying well, the level of the water table is receding and the playing characteristics are already, less than a week later falling back in to line with the tournament match courts.
Photos taken exactly 7 days later - showing Centre Court & Match courts in pristine condition, and practice courts even back open for member use!
We have to say then, that despite the shocking images that came out from the flash flooding, we have not been badly affected. We've definitely had to work extremely hard to minimise the impact on our day to day operations, with a huge clean-up operation having been implemented, and to some extent we've had to think outside the box with our court maintenance to ensure we exceed the high standards we continue to set ourselves from one year to the next. That said, we have every confidence that come the 16th of June, when the first ball of qualifying is hit for the Nature Valley Classic Birmingham, the grounds will look picturesque, the courts will be playing to their optimum level and we will definitely be ready.
Now if we could just get the weather on board for the foreseeable future that would be lovely!