Lollapalooza's First Evacuation Relatively Smooth
August 6, 2012
By Heather Gillers, Chicago Tribune
Aug. 06--Lollapalooza's first-ever evacuation ran relatively smoothly, said city and concert officials, who kept a close eye on the fast-changing skies. Tens of thousands of fans left Grant Park Saturday afternoon before a thunderstorm hit and then returned in time for evening shows -- though what happened in between was less orderly.
About six or seven bands were unable to play because of the evacuation, but Lollapalooza promoter C3 Presents will not make any refunds, spokeswoman Shelby Meade said.
The evacuation order -- announced while the sky was still bright -- seemed sudden and overcautious to disappointed concertgoers. But it was the result of close to 24 hours of careful weather-watching by city, concert and National Weather Service officials. The city's emergency management office and the National Weather Service held a conference call Friday evening about the possibility of severe storms, initially expected Saturday evening, said Richard Castro of the National Weather Service in Romeoville.
Around noon Saturday, meteorologists advised that the storms might come earlier, Castro said, and the emergency management office and the National Weather Service remained in close contact over the next few hours. Meanwhile, at Grant Park, C3 Presents was watching the storm using on-site wind and weather monitoring equipment.
At about 2:30 p.m., city and C3 officials held a meeting and agreed to evacuate the festival, the emergency management office said.
Concertgoers were advised to leave Grant Park about 3:30 p.m. in announcements made from concert stages and on large screens around the park. The message also went out via social media.
Ian Kirchner, 18, of Atlanta, Ga., was watching Neon Indian perform when the set was cut short. "They started lowering the LED screens, lowering the light setup," he said. "They started closing all the tents. Some of the staff members started going around telling everybody they had to get out."
By the time the National Weather Service sent out its severe thunderstorm warning for Cook County at 3:50 p.m., the evacuation of Grant Park was already underway.
In contrast, a Sugarland concert at the Indiana State Fair last year was not evacuated even after a severe thunderstorm warning. Strong winds blew the stage structure into the audience minutes later, killing seven fans.
C3 Presents estimated that more than 60,000 festivalgoers and nearly 3,000 staff, artists and vendors left the park in 38 minutes -- before a drop of rain fell.
Castro said winds in Grant Park during the storm likely got up between 40 and 60 miles per hour -- high enough to destroy temporary structures such as tents and stages -- and said the storm included an unusual amount of lightning. "That's very dangerous for thousands of people in a park," he said. "When there's a lot of people, there's more people for the lightning to strike."
Many of the measures taken leading up to the evacuation had been outlined in a severe weather plan jointly developed by the city and C3. The plan also called for City of Chicago emergency services personnel to direct evacuees to the entrances to three underground shelters -- Grant Park North Garage, Grant Park South Garage and East Monroe Street Garage. But many concertgoers said they received no instruction on where to evacuate to, and crowds clustered under building awnings and bus shelters while waiting for the storm to pass.
Staff at Grant Park North Garage estimated that perhaps 100 people had taken shelter there, and those interviewed said they had found the location on their own. Alicia Fuentes, 27, of San Francisco, said she thought to take shelter in the garage only because she had parked her car there.
"All they said was 'move now, move now,'" she said. "No directions. Nothing. We didn't even know what was going on until I called my mom. She said 'there are severe thunderstorms coming through, you better go underground.'"
Others clustered in the garage said that they had also parked there -- or that they had stumbled on it while looking for a warm, dry spot.
George Clark, 21, of Chicago said he and his friends were first told to evacuate Grant Park and then shooed away from the park's entranceway.
"They just started telling us to leave," Clark said. "They didn't tell us to go anywhere specific."
Meade, the C3 spokeswoman, said concert-goers got "very clear" instructions from C3 staff. Emergency management spokeswoman Delores Robinson said city and C3 staff advised the evacuees to seek shelter nearby. She said the emergency management office is involved in an ongoing campaign throughout the year to make people aware of where emergency shelters are.
Throngs of concertgoers opted to take shelter in bars, hotels and businesses along Michigan Avenue -- creating an odd scene for the city's tourists and shoppers. Bars ran out of mixed drink ingredients, and young men without shirts lounged in the lobby of the upscale Congress Hotel. As reports circulated that Lollapalooza would resume, hundreds of fans clustered outside of the gates singing Journey's "Don't Stop Believin'."
"I think this is completely crazy, evacuating all these people into the streets of Chicago," said Becca Biggs, of Kenosha, Wis. "I just wonder where everybody went."
Grant Park reopened at 6 p.m. with a revised schedule that lasted until 10:30 instead of the scheduled 10 p.m. end time. The concert ultimately ended around 10:45 p.m.
Chicago Office of Emergency Management and Communications Executive Director Gary W. Schenkel said through a spokeswoman that the Lollapalooza evacuation demonstrated "the joint efforts of the city of Chicago and C3 Presents to protect the public." No injuries or arrests were reported during the evacuation or reopening, Schenkel said.
A statement from Charlie Jones of C3 Presents thanked the city "for their cooperation and commitment to making Lolla a safe and enjoyable experience for all."
After an increase last summer in fans jumping the fences C3 had erected surrounding Grant Park, the promoter beefed up security this year. But the chaotic rush of fans streaming back into the concert following the evacuation provided a new opportunity for some without tickets to make their way in.
The rainfall, which measured 1.43 inches near Midway Airport according to the National Weather Service, also muddied up Grant Park, creating a repeat of last year's concert, when a rainstorm during an already wet summer turned the fields into brown soup. The Lollapalooza contract says C3 must pay for any damage to the fields.
"There's going to have to be a lot of turf replacement," said Bob O'Neill, president of Grant Park Conservancy, who attended the concert. But "we'll get it restored."
(c)2012 the Chicago Tribune
Story Image: Fans gather for a performance by Yellow Ostrich XX at Lollapalooza in Chicago`s Grant Park on Friday, Aug. 3, 2012. (Sitthixay Ditthavong/Invision/AP)
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