A year removed from the dark days of Hurricane Katrina, college athletic departments are now being viewed in a new light-as disaster response specialists.
Amid hundreds of Wal-Mart mattresses covering the floor of the Pete Maravich Assembly Center stood Louisiana State University's 6-foot-9 sophomore basketball star Glen Davis-his outstretched arms supporting intravenous medication drips for separate individuals who had, like thousands of others, sought refuge from the ravages of Hurricane Katrina in this campus sports arena turned triage unit. With proper equipment on which to hang the IV bags not yet available, in stepped "Big Baby," as Davis is known around campus, to quite literally shoulder the burden. It's just one vivid image among many that gave LSU athletic director Skip Bertman chills late last August during the first harrowing days of the evacuation of New Orleans, as the storm made landfall some 80 miles southeast of Baton Rouge.
It was a scene befitting a war zone. Helicopters carrying evacuees landed on LSU's outdoor track and field facility at a pace of one every 10 minutes. The university's Carl Maddox Field House opened its doors to the infirm. Ambulance sirens whined relentlessly. As volunteer doctors and nurses assumed around-the-clock control of the athletic department's facilities, Bertman briefed student-athletes-including 33 members of the football team who hailed from the New Orleans area but had no way of knowing the fate of family members once the phone systems there failed-about the situation. "The football players said, `Well, what can we do while we're waiting?' " Bertman recalls.
Soon those among LSU's 430 scholarship athletes who were on campus (classes had not yet begun and, in fact, would be delayed by the three-week-long disaster-relief effort) began visiting with evacuees and collecting supplies such as bed sheets and toiletries from within the Baton Rouge community. Coaches and strength coordinators unloaded food from semi-trailers. Equipment managers laundered linens and clothing. "In the first three days, our athletic department sent over every bandage and every piece of gauze that we had," says Bertman, adding that the Maravich Center alone would treat some 27,000 evacuees. "I was very proud to be part of LSU when I saw what people had done. It was heroic stuff."
A year later, Hurricane Katrina-and its hastily arriving successors, Hurricanes Rita and Wilma-are rightly being viewed as watershed episodes on the timeline of disaster recovery. For the first time in American history, civil authorities saw athletic facilities as indispensable destination points for the displaced and desperate. "Prior to these disasters, the concept of a mega-shelter was not heard of in our country," says Greg Davis, director of the University of Louisiana-Lafayette's Cajundome, which housed an estimated 18,500 evacuees in the four months following Katrina, including as many as 7,000 at a time. "The American Red Cross had not even thought of major facilities such as arenas, convention centers and stadiums being used as mega-shelters. Prior to Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, the Red Cross served as the primary provider of shelter to disaster evacuees, using mostly schools and church halls, but the disasters that they had dealt with before were not even near the scale of those two events."
Moreover, college campuses proved particularly effective in dealing with the disasters' aftermath due to their concentrations of both large facilities and able personnel. Their successes were enough to either create or expedite movements within certain collegiate athletic conferences to draft disaster preparedness plans. Says Mike Slive, commissioner of the Southeastern Conference, which encompasses four states that sustained hurricane damage last year, "The way our presidents and chancellors thought about it, particularly after the experience at LSU, is that many of our institutions are uniquely equipped to assist civil authorities, for two reasons. One, we often have the facilities, as LSU did, to take care of large numbers of people. And secondly, athletic department staffs are trained and experienced in moving large numbers of people, because we have such huge crowds that attend our athletic events. Recognizing that, it's clear that athletic departments and major institutions with athletic facilities should be part of the first response."
According to Bertman, LSU assumes its athletic facilities will be relied upon for future disaster relief. In fact, it began bracing for the influx of Katrina victims days in advance, thanks in large part to the advance notice of the storm's path and strength coming out of the on-campus LSU Hurricane Center. The Cajundome's Davis, on the other hand, was caught somewhat unawares not only by the magnitude of the storm's impact, but by the role his facility would ultimately play in the recovery effort. On a handful of occasions during the dome's 20-year history, meeting rooms had been used as shelters, but Katrina and Rita effectively shut down the entire facility for a third of the calendar year-canceling or postponing 30 scheduled events. Unembittered, Davis personally negotiated with local fire marshals to allow evacuees to occupy floor space near facility exits. He used radio and print media to plead for community donations of cots, pillows, blankets and personal hygiene products. He authorized the initial purchase of $300,000 worth of food, since the same state and federal agencies that had identified his facility as a mega-shelter had not followed up with provisions. "We began to feed the people ourselves, with no idea of how or if we would get reimbursed," Davis says.
All 40 of the facility's full-time employees, as well as its legion of part-timers, contributed to the effort. "We kept the facility properly sanitized up to hospital standards, for the purpose of preventing the spread of disease within the shelter population," says Davis, who estimates he personally got roughly four hours of sleep every 72 hours during the ordeal's first 10 days. In the end, it proved a relatively orderly operation-certainly when compared to the chaos reported at the Louisiana Superdome and Ernest N. Morial Convention Center in New Orleans. By the time the last evacuee had left his care, however, Davis found himself staring down a $6.2 million tab, which didn't account for lost event revenue. The Federal Emergency Management Agency reimbursed the Cajundome $5 million, with the remaining $1.2 million still under appeal. That amount represents the money spent returning the facility to its normal operational state, a debt FEMA has refused to cover, according to Davis. "The reason that's important to us is we do not operate using tax dollars. We have to generate our operating revenues," he says. "When FEMA caused us to shut down for four months, it took away our ability to generate those revenues. It's our contention, therefore, that FEMA should pay usage fees-not just during the sheltering operation, but also during the recovery period."
The lesson is one that Davis would share with attendees at last month's International Association of Assembly Managers conference in San Antonio. "Government officials-local, state and federal-are meeting and discussing evacuation and sheltering plans before disasters occur," he says. "Facility managers need to make sure that they know which government officials have the authority to activate their facility as a mega-shelter. They also need to make sure that they understand government's planned use of their facility, so that they can study it and find for themselves if it makes sense. If it doesn't make sense, they need to sit down with these officials and tell them why it doesn't make sense. What happened at the Superdome was a consequence of government officials utilizing that facility in a way that facility management had advised the facility could not be used."
Mike Womack, deputy director of the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency, agrees that universities need to be involved in the larger planning process. "Universities should develop a plan and establish how the different parts of the plan fit into the local community's plan, how that community plan fits into the state plan and on up to the federal plan," Womack says. And in developing their own disaster-response plan, universities would be best served to tap the assets found in their athletic departments. "When you think about it, people in athletic departments are accustomed to team-building, and they may be able to provide leadership for the whole university if and when it gets into a crisis situation."
Crisis situations seem to follow Rick Mello. The longtime collegiate athletics administrator faced the San Francisco earthquake while at the University of California, Berkeley in 1989 and dealt with Hurricane Andrew while at the University of Miami in 1992. "Unfortunately, I have a little bit more experience with natural disasters than I'd like to have," says Mello, director of athletics at Florida International University, home to the National Hurricane Center.
Mello, who with Womack conducted a session titled "Planning for the Next Natural Disaster" at the National Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletics conference (held, appropriately enough, in New Orleans) in June, again found himself picking up the pieces the previous October, when Hurricane Wilma caused $300,000 worth of damage to FIU's athletic facilities. As chair of the committee that is developing a disaster-response plan for the Sun Belt Conference, Mello says athletic departments can't overlook their role in a crisis, particularly as it pertains to managing their own human resources. "Once your own family is secure, you have this other family of maybe 450 kids that you have to deal with," he says. "If athletic departments are expected to prepare student-athletes in terms of their athletics and academics, the athletic director had better be able to tell those parents from Minnesota that he or she can protect their children in a hurricane."
Mello, too, talks about how athletics fits into the bigger emergency-management picture. "Your number-one responsibility is to adhere to the university's campus disaster plan. But it's important to take the nuances involved with athletics and have a university-approved plan within a plan that gives you a map so you can deal with things as they come up."
Such a plan may cover the establishment of an alternative line of communication to reach student-athletes ("Information is a huge source of comfort in a natural disaster," Mello says) or the creation of an emergency organizational chart ("You might have an organizational chart that works every day, but if you don't get the sense that someone high up in your chain can deal well with disasters, you'd better tweak it"). Once a plan is in place, Mello advises mentioning it briefly in the student-athlete handbook and during orientation, then revisiting it at least one more time later in the year. Based on his own personal experience, Mello also emphasizes that natural disasters take many forms-from high winds to suffocating heat. "A natural disaster can be six days of snow, especially if the city shuts down and the power is out," he says.
Some natural disasters-namely hurricanes and earthquakes-are on opposite ends of the predictability scale. To stay on top of pending weather events, at least, the University of Maryland, which saw two students die when a tornado hit campus in 2001, subscribes to WeatherData, a service that sends weather warnings via text message to individual cell phones. "Most of the time, we in athletics will call and speak with a meteorologist directly as to what's going on, when it's going to get here, how long it's going to last and when we'll be able to get out on the field," says Darryl Conway, assistant athletic director for sports medicine, who has final say in practice-field evacuation decisions. Maryland also identifies venue-specific "safe," "secondary safe" and "unacceptable" shelter locations when severe weather is inevitable. Likewise, the University of North Dakota's written guidelines for managing the public in game-day settings breaks down locations within each athletic facility-listing the lower-level concourse of its hockey arena as providing suitable shelter, and the area under the arena's free-span roof as one place to avoid.
The University of Iowa athletic department dodged several bullets in April, when as many as five tornadoes touched down in the Iowa City area. The storm miraculously spared Iowa's campus for the most part, but nonetheless served to remind athletics administrators of what might have been. "We were in the middle of building a new press box, and we certainly took a look at that area the night after the tornado to make sure there wasn't any damage," says Paula Jantz, associate athletics director for operations and event management. "The athletic department was very lucky."
Some individuals were not so fortunate, as storm damage displaced several student-athletes from their off-campus apartments. That left Iowa compliance officials to carefully consider just how much help the athletic department could provide those affected. Putting the student-athletes up in hotels, for example, was considered an extra benefit not available to all university students, and thus a violation of NCAA rules. "It wasn't as if we weren't involved," says Jantz, noting that the athletic department worked closely with the university's student services office. "We provided information to our student-athletes on where they could go and where assistance would be given."
In the event of a game-day weather threat, Iowa has revised its evacuation plan to account for the larger press box, which grew in capacity from 700 to 3,000. "Tornadoes are scary," Jantz says. "We're well aware of what can happen, so those of us here in athletics are very familiar with the various Internet weather sites. We spend a lot of time looking at them."
Whether any natural event can ever rival the devastation of Hurricane Katrina is impossible to predict, but the Gulf Coast region has never been on higher alert. "Knowing what we know now, and with the levies not being completely finished, we estimate that there will probably be eight or 10 evacuations of New Orleans that will come into the PMAC and into the field house" this hurricane season, says LSU's Bertman. "So, we're prepared to disrupt our athletic department and our student body eight or 10 times." When asked if the LSU athletic department still accepts its go-to role, Bertman says, "Of course."
He admits, though, that LSU athletics still hasn't fully recovered, at least financially, from last year's evacuation. The Tigers' first game of the 2005 football season against Arizona State was supposed to be played in Baton Rouge, but instead was moved to Tempe, costing LSU $2 million. The second game of the season, also scheduled to be played at home, was postponed. The third was played on a Monday night to avoid Rita-related fallout. By season's end, the football program had crammed an 11-game schedule into a 10-week, five-day period. The volleyball team didn't play a match in the Maravich Center until Oct. 14. In all, the LSU athletic department lost or paid to other schools a total approaching $3.5 million. Add to that $400,000 in facility damage, and it came as little surprise to Tiger football fans that they would face a ticket price increase for 2006. Says Bertman, "The athletic department was instrumental in helping tens of thousands of people, and our fans should be congratulated, because they're doing the same thing.
"People helping people, that's what America does best," he adds. "People from all over the country mobilized and gave of themselves, their money and their time, and never thought twice about it. I don't think any other place in the world can do that. And I'm very proud of that. I watched it happen here. And I think no matter what happens, the power of the human spirit will prevail."