Date: September 7, 2005
Staff at venues serving as shelters to tens of thousands of displaced storm victims are working as hard as those in the stricken areas. Wil Caudell, general manager of the Reunion Arena in Dallas, was looking forward to his first good night’s sleep in a week yesterday. “It was the 31st of August the last time I looked up,” he said.
This is the first time in his 30-year career in venue management that he has served as a host to disaster victims. He found out Monday evening, Aug. 29, that he would be accepting well over 7,000 New Orleans evacuees starting the next day. “The city called and said, ‘We’re in dire straits. We have to start taking people out of Louisiana. Is there any way you can help us?’ And I said…sure. And we just kicked into high gear.”
The venue had not been pre-designated as a shelter, and the call came as a surprise to Caudell.
Caudell got on the phone immediately with the venue’s contractors and police to alert everyone of the development. The Red Cross, Salvation Army and Texas National Guard arrived on scene. Communication was key.
“Thousands of people were coming in this direction on busses, in cars and anything they could find, with essentially no plan in place. So we had to scramble within a few hours to get things going,” Caudell said. “Fortunately for us, one of the things we did was we asked for a Red Cross radio the first night, so not only could they call us immediately, but we could monitor what they planned to do next with the operations.”
Serendipitously, a terrorism disaster practice drill had been carried out by the county at the arena recently, so many of the local first responders were familiar with the facility’s layout, Caudell said.
The biggest obstacle, and a familiar story in the response to Hurricane Katrina, was nobody knew who was in charge, Caudell said. “We had a lot of chiefs real quick,” he said. “I probably offended pretty much everybody I came in contact with the first couple of days. But what was important was taking care of these people coming in. I figured we’ve got to do what we’ve got to do in any way that accommodates the people in a safe manner.”
Caudell took the tack that the Red Cross was his client, so he took directions from them, but the venue staff knows how to handle issues related to safety in the venue. “A lot of guys in our business, we’ve handled rough crowds and big crowds, crowds that want to rush the stage, rush the door and crazy things. It was pretty doggone good training because this time it was for keeps,” he said. “Every…crowd management skill you learned over the years you pretty much had to apply it pretty quick. Sometimes I had to raise my voice when those well intentioned did something that was unlawful when it comes to crowds.”
The arena has 30,000 square feet of floor space with cots. After those filled, evacuees were diverted into the arena’s sister building, the Dallas Convention Center, where the city paid for the cots to be set up in a 200,000-square-foot exhibition hall. About 8,000 of the most desperate New Orleans evacuees, those rescued last from the chaos at the Morial Convention Center, have been housed there.
“I haven’t heard a negative word from any of them about how they’ve been treated,” Caudell said. “These people have been through a living hell.”
Local aid groups are working quickly to find more long-term housing and contact relatives, so the numbers of overnighters at the arena are dwindling every day, Caudell said, down to only several hundred by last night.
The response from the community has been overwhelming, to the point that Caudell has had to make an effort to concentrate on his tasks at hand. Locals were asked not to bring donations to the venues, but they did anyway, setting up their own impromptu clearinghouses of supplies for evacuees outside. “At times it was helpful,” he said. At one point, the convention center ran out of baby formula, so Caudell went to these stations to collect bottles.
Local medical workers were on hand to sort evacuees coming off busses. “I can’t even put into words how great they’ve been,” he said. “There were people with snake bits and alligator bites and unbelievable [injuries]. They hadn’t showered…and the water there was toxic with bodies floating by and everything else.”
The immediate crisis has waned as evacuees plan what to do next. FEMA arrived on the scene yesterday and has set up posts at both venues to assist.
Caudell only has five full-time staff members. When the 25-year-old arena ramps up for events, staff from the convention center are used. Many of those employees have been staying at the venues overnight or working long shifts, he said.
Food is handled entirely by the Red Cross. Exercise areas have been set up outside, and the Red Cross set up two large-screen televisions to show movies around the clock. Caudell set up a space in the concourse for the local school district to come in and register students and the kids were bussed off to school for the first time yesterday. Parents were allowed to accompany the children, he said.
In an ever-changing event booking scenario, SMG-managed venues serving as shelters totaled five, housing 36,000, as of Saturday afternoon. But that was expected to change, upward, said Glenn Mon, SMG senior vice president of stadiums and arenas, whose job has been to marshal staffing for this new endeavor in the wake of the devastation and evacuation of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast.
SMG was hard hit by the hurricane, managing four venues in New Orleans alone, not to mention other properties in Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama, and including the firm’s most lucrative account, the Louisiana Superdome. But they have not stopped to look back, deploying staff from various SMG buildings to bolster existing personnel at venues designated shelters for the newly homeless by FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) and OEP (Office of Emergency Preparedness).
“A couple more of our venues have been rushed into service as a shelter, most recently Bossier City [La.],” he said Friday. “Corpus Christi is on hold.” What most amazed Mon is the level of volunteerism. “Three of our engineers from the Superdome, literally some of the last personnel we got out of there [New Orleans] Thursday morning [Sept. 1], raised their hand and are on their way to Houston now to help at the Astrodome.” One night’s sleep and they were on the go again, facing the need to do something head-on.
Mon’s job has been to coordinate. “I have six people coming from Jacksonville to Houston. We’re flying people from Pensacola and from Topeka to Beaumont to back up our staff there.” He’s been marshalling troops from “on the ground” since Tuesday morning [Aug. 31], headquartered at SMG’s River Center in Baton Rouge, La., and the Lamar-Dixon Expo Center, Gonzales, both designated shelters before the storm hit.
All told, Mon has deployed about 20 management personnel to various designated shelters. “We’re able to muster significant manpower, not unlike we mustered a dozen people for Super Bowl to help out in Jacksonville last year,” Mon said of SMG.
“Running our buildings as shelters is a 24/7 operation,” Mon said. The reality is to do that requires additional personnel.
As of Saturday, SMG was housing 2,000 evacuees at Lamar-Dixon; 5,000 at the River Center; 25,000 in Houston (at AstroArena, Astrodome and Reliant Center); 1,500 at the Ford Center, Beaumont; and 1,000 at CenturyTel Arena, Bossier City, La. The drill usually starts when the facility is contacted by the government authorities — FEMA or Homeland Security — about availability.
For SMG, the process is “analogous to an event. We perform the event functions — coordination, keep the building operating and provide them with services, but now the event is 24 hours, seven days a week, so we have to supplement our on-site personnel with other personnel to provide a realistic staffing rotation for our people. In Houston, we have personnel from Jacksonville, Columbus, Ohio, University of Virginia, Albuquerque, Salt Lake City and Oakland,” Mon said. “We are supporting Bossier City with corporate personnel; Beaumont with personnel from Laredo and Pensacola. And we still have another dozen or so we can redeploy if Corpus Christi comes on line.”
Technically, this “event” even includes ticket taking, which translates to the Red Cross registering evacuees. SMG handles all the janitorial and trash removal. Building security has a role along with law enforcement, depending on the jurisdiction. In Baton Rouge and Houston, it’s the police department; in Beaumont, the Jefferson County sheriff’s department. SMG engineers and maintenance personnel keep the systems working. “We were called upon to do all the breakfasts for the population in Baton Rouge — 5,000 breakfasts for distribution,” Mon said of SMG’s in-house food concessions operation.
It’s basic property management — “plotting out your event setup,” Mon said. Entertainment? “The Red Cross handles some of that. They get games and coloring books for the kids. Here at Lamar-Dixon they asked for a stage because they have an entertainer who wants to put on a concert. The Catholic archdiocese of Baton Rouge came to us for a place to hold a mass. In Baton Rouge, yesterday, Congressman Baker’s office requested space to set up tables to make sure people had cards to set up social security payments. In Houston, they are setting up a bank.”
SMG’s supplemental staffers arrive in all modes of transportation. For Houston, three from Baton Rouge went via rental car. Some find their own way in. A Jacksonville contingent hired a van and started driving to Houston Friday. “We’re asking that our facilities provide housing for them,” Mon said, most often hotel rooms, though some are staying in the shelters on cots.
Some shelters serve varied purposes. For example, the rescued livestock and pets are at Lamar-Dixon. Most of the evacuated horses have now been reclaimed, but there are still plenty of rescued horses and pets. (See related story below.) Entergy is also using the Lamar-Dixon property, as is All State Insurance, which is using it as a living space for adjustors staged for getting into the effected areas.
“Look in one of our stalls, you’ll see five pet carriers with dogs. This is also the repository for strays that are rescued,” Mon said, adding there are pets at all of the shelters. “In Baton Rouge, we’ve taken the lobby of our ticket office as the designated animal room,” Mon said.
At Ford Park in Beaumount, Texas, the show went on, even with evacuees still on site. Organizers held the third annual Labor Day Music Festival with Mark Chesnutt, Tracy Byrd and others at the Ford Pavilion while 1,500 hurricane victims were housed at the exhibit hall portion of the complex.
Evacuees were invited to attend the show free of charge. “It definitely boosted our numbers,” said Allan Vella, the general manager of Ford Park. About 9,000 people attended the show.
The musicians clearly supported the move and encouraged attendees to donate to the Red Cross.
Ford Park has five separate venues. Also that day, the Ford Midway hosted the Go Texan BBQ contest, which fed the evacuees. “Normally we just donate the food. Just this time the people were on site,” Vella said. The Live Barn Burner Sale went on at the Ford Arena and the Labor Day Classic Baseball Tournament was held at Ford Field.
It was the first time in Ford Park’s history all five venues were used simultaneously.
Vella admitted it was very challenging to host such a large festival while housing an additional 1,500 people 24 hours a day at a hall not designed for that purpose. “It adds a whole different dimension,” he said.
Evacuees began arriving at the facility Aug. 27. Vella said some have only stayed a short time after finding a permanent home with friends or family. After they leave, the American Red Cross brings in additional people, keeping the exhibit hall at full capacity.
Vella was unsure how long evacuees will be staying at the facility. “Originally we were told they would be staying until the 15th of the month. We’re assuming it’s going to be longer than that,” he said.
The hurricane victims are using team locker room shower rooms and Naval reservists have been assigned to oversee the food distribution in conjunction with the American Red Cross, SMG Food and Beverage, and other volunteer organizations.
Interviewed for this story: Wil Caudell, (214) 800-3085; Glenn Mon, (215) 592-6609; Allan Vella, (409) 951-5400