Sheltering from Irma; Harvey Updates

Arena becomes largest shelter in Georgia; Houston theater district begins the cleanup

  • by Linda Deckard
  • Published: September 13, 2017

Houstonians found that last stop treacherous, as the photo of a submerged stairwell at the Wortham Theater Center proves. The basement was completely submerged.

The Columbus (Ga.) Civic Center became the largest shelter in that state last Friday as Hurricane Irma forced evacuations across the Southeastern states. Meanwhile, the Houston Theater District is pumping furiously to remove the flood waters from Hurricane Harvey two weeks ago.

Jon Dorman, who took the director job in Columbus in February, and whose family is still in Florida, said at its peak, the civic center was housing 600 people on the hockey floor and concourses. About 100 of them managed to leave for home or friends yesterday (Tuesday). “The plan, at this point, is to close the shelter tomorrow after breakfast,” Dorman said on Wednesday.

They found room on the 17,000 sq. ft. arena floor and the concourse encircling the building for 650 cots, he said. The event hallway was outside the dressing rooms, staffed with nurses and used for people with injuries. A lot of patients from mental  health institutions were in the evacuee mix, Dorman explained.

One side of the concourse was designated animal friendly, the other prohibited pets. Pet owners were able to exit and enter the arena at designated locations to take care of the animals, all of which were kept in kennels. The arena seats 10,000.

In the past, the local Red Cross Disaster Management team has used recreation centers throughout the town as shelters, Dorman said. The civic center was designated a potential shelter, but had not been called upon until it became clear the number of evacuees expected from Hurricane Irma would surpass the ability to spread resources throughout town.

Donations were used to feed the evacuees, a lot of those from local restaurants, Dorman said.

The venue staff provided security, setup and janitorial services, as well as operations backup, keeping the lights and air-conditioning going. “It was a hell of a job keeping the showers and restrooms clean for that many guests 24/7,” Dorman said, praising his staff.

The Columbus Civic Center has 25 full-time employees who worked in shifts, Dorman said. That included event managers and nine operations staff. “We probably had 12 part-timers rotating in and out,” he said. Dorman personally did not sleep at the civic center, but he was there from morning to lights out at 10 p.m. all six days.

“We had very few problems,” Dorman said. “The Red Cross was very complimentary.”


Meanwhile, assessments, cleanup and repairs are underway at Jones Hall, Wortham Center, and Theater District underground parking in Houston, all of which sustained water damage from Hurricane Harvey.. The facilities remain closed to staff and the public, according to Leah Shah, PR director for Houston First Corporation (HFC), which operates the venues and garages.

Dawn Ullrich, president and CEO, Houston First Corporation, urged the public to remain patient, noting that besides theater patrons, 3,000 monthly parking customers are out of luck for now.

Jones Hall suffered minimal damages. Water entered the lower level and the rehearsal room, covering the wood floor. The floor and wet drywall have been removed and will be replaced. Assuming Jones receives good air quality and structural reports, the building should re-open to staff and performances by the end of the week.

Contractors continue pumping out water and removing soggy carpet and drywall from Wortham Theater Center. The basement was completely submerged in water. Flood water also reached the stage floor of the Brown Theater, so the stage floor is being removed and replaced. The building still has no power. One of the biggest concerns is air quality, so tests will be conducted as soon as the building is dry. No re-opening date has been determined for the Wortham, and events and performances have been canceled through Oct. 15.

More than 270-million gallons of water filled the Theater District parking garages. As of Wednesday, about 85% of the water had been pumped out. Getting the underground garages fully operational is expected to take several weeks, and they have been closed until further notice. In the meantime, monthly parking customers, including city employees, have been assigned alternative parking at other Houston First parking facilities. Houston First is also working with its parking partner, Republic Parking System, to secure additional downtown locations. Shuttle services are being provided at some locations to transport customers to and from temporary parking sites to their offices.

Houston First Theater District employees have been temporarily relocated to Partnership Tower while recovery work is being done at Jones, Wortham and the underground garages.

Houston First is assisting Alley Theater management with moving their employees into temporary offices in HFC’s former offices at 4 Houston Center while the Alley undergoes cleanup and repairs.

Robyn Williams, director of Portland’5 Centers for the Performing Arts who used to work in the Houston theater district, had kept in touch with her former co-workers through these hurricane weeks (an exercise most in the industry undertook recently), and noted that many of the theaters had taken steps to “waterproof” as much as they could. Costumes, instruments, equpment and papers, essentially whatever could be moved out of the basement, had been moved; but, unfortunately, mechanical is permanently located there.

  • by Linda Deckard
  • Published: September 13, 2017