NORTH PORT, Fla. – Mike Dunn hits the gas pedal and drives a golf cart toward the main stadium at the Braves’ CoolToday Park spring training complex. The cart breezes through the open outfield wall, past the bullpens, and stops on the warning track in center field.
He begins to point out everything damaged during Hurricane Ian, the Category 4 storm that devastated this area in September. Dunn mentions the infrastructure, the infield clay (yes, you read that correctly), the fences and much more as parts of the facility that needed to be replaced or restored in order for the Braves to hold spring training here months later. The list of repairs is quite long, and the list of people who helped make it happen is even longer.
“The most eye-popping thing was just the amount of debris that you knew didn’t belong to the stadium that was there,” said Dunn, the vice president of Florida operations for the Braves. “It was from someone’s yard, someone’s business. There was so much debris. It was sad because you knew that it came from someone’s house, someone’s business.”
Dunn, who has worked for the Braves for over 30 years, has spent the last five and a half in his current role, which has allowed him to see this complex – which officially began hosting Braves spring training in 2020 – up close and personal. “I watched it come out of the ground,” he says. But the last four months have been the most difficult of his career, as he and a large team of his staff members, as well as first responders, worked around the clock after the hurricane ripped through the facility.
On Monday, the first reporting date of spring training, CoolToday Park looks almost brand new. There are still a couple fixes to be made, but this place hosted baseball at the end of January, which capped a remarkable turnaround after the hurricane flooded much of the complex while tearing it apart and leaving debris everywhere.
Dunn estimates all the repairs, when finished, will end up costing $10 million.
Dunn, his staff here, and rescue teams worked 20 hours a day, seven days a week. And they restored this spring training facility while experiencing damage to their own belongings.
“I’ve been living under a tarp for a couple of months,” said Dunn, whose roof will soon be repaired.
This is a story about what needed to be repaired and how the crews got CoolToday Park ready for Braves spring training.
On the day after the hurricane hit this part of Florida, Dunn left his house to check on the CoolToday Park complex. He lives about eight miles away. It took him four hours.
“It just looked like a war zone,” he said. “The roads were completely dammed up with fallen trees and debris.”
Dunn and others checked on all of the stadium’s employees and their families. They evacuated a few employees and put them in the academy dorm, which served as a safe building because it was unharmed.
This started a lengthy recovery process that also included the stadium becoming a pillar for the community by giving back in different ways.
Credit: Photo courtesy of Atlanta Braves
Credit: Photo courtesy of Atlanta Braves
For nine hours, the residents here waited through 150-mph sustained winds and rain. The hurricane sat over them.
“It didn’t move,” Dunn said. “You’re sitting in a hurricane.”
The majority of the facility’s damage came to its infrastructure. Dunn estimates that they replaced 200,000 square feet of carpet and 150,000 square feet of drywall throughout the facility.
The Braves’ big-league clubhouse had a range of flooding, depending where you looked – six inches in some places, and up to 10 inches in others. The clubhouse roof had to be repaired. The ceiling, drywall, carpet and electrical components needed replacing.
Flying debris punctured rubber roofs, which they believe is how the press box became flooded and destroyed. The water infiltrated the tunnels underneath the stadium, with 12 to 14 inches of water pooling up in some areas. The press box, including its windows and roof, is new. The storm also destroyed televisions and phones inside the facility.
The infield clay
Dunn explains that, after the hurricane, the infield dirt and outfield grass were not on even ground. The infield was a step down because the wind had sucked up a few inches of the clay and swept it somewhere. This happened on all seven major-league fields here.
“It acted like a typhoon and it just sucked up the clay and took it – we don’t know where,” Dunn said.
Describing what the infield looked like without the clay on top, Dunn said: “It was white. It was more sand, whatever was left.”
The Braves ordered over 150 tons of clay at a cost of over $1 million.
After the hurricane, no one had any clue where the wind blew the clay.
“The only place we had a pile of clay was in right field here (in the main stadium),” Dunn said. “All the other clay on all the fields, we’ve never found it. It’s in somebody’s yard.”
In the days and weeks that followed the storm, CoolToday Park’s parking lots served as staging areas for Florida Power & Light (FPL) employees and the rescue and recovery crews contracted to help. Every part of the parking lot was covered. There were cars, trucks, pop-up kitchens, laundry services and more. At that time, 620 FPL employees slept onsite for three and a half weeks.
“They brought in tractor-trailers that were bunkhouses – male, female, male, female – and they slept 24 to a camper,” Dunn said.
“Any fence you see was either down and destroyed or missing, got displaced somewhere,” Dunn said.
As Dunn steers the golf cart out of the main stadium and toward the back fields, he turns his attention toward the fences around the bullpen mounds near the Braves’ clubhouse. Those are new because the storm destroyed the others.
“It was just a pile of trash is all it was,” he said.
Then there’s this: The outfield fences on fields 2, 3, 5 and 6 – which create the exterior perimeter of the complex – collapsed, so the staff here had to hire 24-hour security to protect from potential looters.
The new fencing around the 90-acre facility, Dunn said, cost millions.
Despite all the rubble and ruin, those at CoolToday Park felt blessed. This could have been much worse.
“We looked at it as very fortunate because there were people that lost lives, people that lost all their belongings, and we were able to at least have something,” Dunn said.
So the folks here began giving back. Some food from the parking-lot kitchens went to churches and charities who needed it. With the generators here, they produced ice for law enforcement.
“We all had damages at our house, we still have damages at our house,” Dunn said. “But we were able to work on a bigger mindset of helping the masses (and) we knew that our families were safe and everybody was in a decent place, so we were able to execute it here.”
Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC
Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC
Other impacted parts of the facility
The Braves’ agility field – which sits adjacent to the weight room – flooded as the wind blew the rain.
“It looked like a lake,” Dunn said. “It looked like whitecaps, waves, the whole nine yards.”
There were multiple jaw-dropping anomalies like this.
Here’s another: The 1,500-pound steel doors that cover the dumpsters in the parking lot ripped off, flew through a large fence and landed around 300 yards away. (Workers retrieved and restored them).
On the tour, Dunn mentioned a few wins for the facility.
The academy building – which are like dorms for the minor leaguers – wasn’t damaged. Neither were the huge numbers honoring the retired players outside the front of the stadium. And because the rain provided so much water for root systems, workers saved many displaced trees by putting them back into the roots and staking them there.
Feb. 25, the Braves’ Grapefruit League opener, will mark the first spring training game here since Hurricane Ian. The Braves plan to honor first responders during the afternoon.
“It’ll be a great day to acknowledge what everybody has done to get us to that point,” Dunn said. “It’ll give us time to reflect a little bit and be thankful for the first responders and all the people that went out and did the stuff that saved lives. We were taking care of a stadium, and that was a big enough chore to take on. I think it’ll be great for the community, it’ll be a good opportunity for everybody to come together and really reflect on what everybody’s been through the last four, five months.”
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Credit: Nathan Posner for the AJC