Watching and Waiting: When Weather Impacts Park Visits
Yesterday, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) upgraded their tropical outlook and increased the number and potential severity of named tropical storms that could become hurricanes in the Atlantic. Click here for a link to their updates tropical storm forecast. Many coastal Virginia State Parks, and sometimes some inland Virginia State Parks, are in the projected path of storms.
Photo from National Hurricane Center website of Hurricane Ernesto on August 7, 2012
Virginia State Parks takes visitor and staff safety very seriously. It may seem that our weather closure criterion errs too far on the side of caution but that is because we are dealing with three very important issues during a storm.
First, we work to ensure the safety of our guests which takes time. We must provide notification of closure so families have time change their reservations if they haven’t arrived yet or so families can repack their gear if they are already here, find safer accommodations, and be able to get home safely on busy highways full of other people evacuating the area.
It can take time to pack up a campsite once park closure is announced.
Second, we need to secure the park’s facilities including boarding up windows, securing signs, picnic tables, and chairs; parking vehicle in covered areas; checking safety gear and equipment; gassing up vehicles and chain saws; and doing final walk through and inspections of the park.
Having our equipment ready means we can clear trees from trails and roads faster after the storms passes by.
Third, many of our staff live on-site or near the park. Our staff needs time to secure their homes, check their own hurricane preparedness kits, and evacuate if required.
Rangers also have to secure their own houses and ensure the safety of their families.
The goal of Virginia State Parks is to make sure you have a great vacation and we do not close the park without serious deliberation and analysis of impending weather forecasts. We have a set policy that park managers follow and while storms sometimes (thankfully!) swing out to sea or miss us entirely, it is best that we err on the side of caution.
Here is our standard for weather closures:
The Park Manager or the highest ranking employee physically present on site (not necessarily scheduled for duty) upon determining that unsafe conditions exist, may close any or all facilities or any part of a facility until that condition no longer exists.
The State Parks Director or his designee shall order the closure of all facilities under the following conditions:
a. A Park will be closed to the public whenever the park is part of an areas declared to be under a “Hurricane Watch” by the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
b. A park will be closed to the public whenever the National Hurricane Center (NHC) of NOAA has determined that there is a greater than a twenty percent (20%) chance of fifty knot or higher winds. The cabins and campground will be closed and guests compelled to leave (see sheltering) when this condition and probability is projected anytime in the subsequent seventy-two (72) hours
c. A park will be closed to the public whenever the National Hurricane Center (NHC) of NOAA has determined that there is a greater than fifty percent (50%) chance of thirty-four knot or higher winds (the tropical storm force). The cabins and campgrounds will be closed and guests compelled to leave (see sheltering) when this condition and probability is projected anytime in the subsequent seventy-two (72) hours.
d. A park or any portion of that park within an area projected to be inundated will be closed to the public twenty-four hours in advance of when local river level forecasts project the inundation.
Closure at this level of this level of threat is done with the understanding that the public’s presence in a State Park area is far more discretionary than that of local residents. Compelling their departure at an earlier stage of a threat minimizes their potential to complicate or even add to the congestion associated with a general evacuation of an area at a later stage of a threat. Further, their early departure provides staff an opportunity to concentrate on safety of resident staff and their families and facility protection.
The above safety thresholds are not intended to limit the authority of the State Park Directory or his designee to close facilities when other contributing factors make that facility unsafe in his judgment.
Our official call to close a park or facilities is the trigger for when we waive collection fees. Prior to that determination, guests are free to cancel using our standard cancelation policy. You can always check out current conditions on the NOAA weather site.
There are times when guests are upset that they have to leave the park or have scheduled a vacation and have no alternate plans or places to stay. However, our decision is based on the determination that it is UNSAFE to remain the park under pending forecasted conditions.
Your safety is imperative during serious storm activity
It is absolutely imperative that you provide us with email addresses and multiple contact phone numbers when making your reservations so that we can call you before you leave or if you are out and about during your stay with us.
Sometimes we are able to accommodate requests to transfer reservations to another park—it just depends on availability and the projected path of the storm.
We have multiple methods to disseminate information to our guests about impending closures.
In the park, rangers will post notices at bathhouses, at contact stations, at the park office, and do park walkthroughs.
Online, we will post information on our website using our emergency bulletin system on each park’s webpage. A brown box will appear that says “Click to read an urgent message about this park” and you will be directed to an up-to-date webpage with current information.
Emergency information is posted on the website in the brown box at the top of each park's web page
For visitors that have an upcoming reservation, our reservation counselors will telephone and send emails informing you of the impending closure.
We also do our best to have closures listed on local television stations and websites as well as send closure information to radio stations.
At times it can be difficult to balance visitor satisfaction and visitor safety. We never want you to have a bad time at Virginia State Parks, we never want to spoil a hard-earned vacation, and we never want to cancel important family time. However, we must always err on the side of safety—visitor safety and staff safety.
Virginia State Park website can be found here.
National Hurricane Center website can be found here.