Katrina’s Impact

Update: Hurricane Katrina moved through New Orleans and Mississippi Gulf Coast towns including Biloxi and Gulfport the morning of August 29th but, at least in the Big Easy, the worst fears began materializing the next day.

Two levees holding back the waters of the Mississippi River and Lake Pontchartrain failed, bringing more water gushing into an already waterlogged city and pushing rising flood waters into the French Quarter, home of clubs and concert venues that were previously thought to be safe from the hurricane’s effects.

In addition to the catastrophic human toll in the region, the concert industry – clubs, arenas, stadiums, their staffs and tour itineraries for hundreds of artists – took a massive hit from Katrina in a swath that reaches far beyond the immediate Gulf Coast.

Venues throughout the South and well into Texas are affected; many of those that weren’t destroyed or heavily damaged are being used either as emergency shelters, staging areas or alternate sites for displaced sports teams.

Initial reports indicated it could be weeks before New Orleans would be safe for residents to re-enter. However, those estimates quickly lengthened to months as reality of the inundation of an entire city set in.

In Houston, the Astrodome announced it would take in as many as 23,000 refugees in what may become the largest evacuation effort in history. A massive caravan of more than 500 school buses was to transport refugees the 350 miles from the Louisiana Superdome to the Astrodome. Air arrangements were being made at press time for those too ill or frail to make the trip by bus.

The need for such a massive effort became clear as the situation at the SMG-managed Superdome in downtown New Orleans became desperate three days after opening as a shelter for residents either unwilling or unable to evacuate as Katrina approached.

Houston officials stressed that the Astrodome would be available only to those evacuating the Superdome – not for earlier evacuees who arrived in Texas on their own, according to the Houston Chronicle.

A spokesman for Texas Gov. Rick Perry said the Astrodome’s schedule was cleared through December to accommodate refugees, according to New Orleans’ WDSU-TV, operating out of Baton Rouge.

At press time, officials were reportedly discussing the possibility of opening up the Ford Center in Beaumont, Texas, as another long-term shelter for refugees stranded in campgrounds, hotels and other temporary housing.

As the storm made landfall in New Orleans in the early morning hours of August 29th, huge portions of the Teflon membrane on the Superdome’s roof peeled away and sections of the roof itself blew off, allowing rain to stream onto the stadium floor.

Conditions inside the Superdome deteriorated rapidly after Katrina struck, leaving the massive building with no power, clean water or air conditioning to circulate the hot, stagnant air. With no flushable toilets, the bathrooms were filthy and barrels overflowed with trash.

At least three people died in the Superdome. One may have been a suicide.

As the stadium was being evacuated, the 13,800-seat CAJUNDOME in Lafayette, La., was also being pressed into service as a Red Cross shelter for evacuees from New Orleans, Mississippi and Alabama, Pam DeVille, the venue’s assistant director of booking, told Pollstar by e-mail.

Back in New Orleans’ French Quarter, House of Blues was reportedly on dry ground in the hours after Katrina blew through but with the breached levees and looters descending on the Quarter, it’s far from out of the woods. An HoB spokesman told Pollstar that “everyone in New Orleans is OK.”

However, HoB VP Kevin Morrow said he had no information on the condition of the club immediately after the two levees failed.

“We’re still waiting for news,” Morrow told Pollstar. “I haven’t heard anything in the last four or five hours. Before the levees were breached, we were OK. And now, if you watch the news, you see the Quarter starting to fill up with water. Since there’s no phones, we don’t know.

“I’m thinking about 300 employees who are out of work for who knows how long. A lot of them are just getting by hand to mouth. So we’re dealing with a lot of stuff,” Morrow said.

Promoter Don Fox of Beaver Productions just missed Katrina when he couldn’t catch a flight back into New Orleans from Chicago because the reorganized storm suddenly blew up into a Category 5 hurricane over the Gulf of Mexico August 27th.

He is working out of Beaver’s offices in Memphis, and reported that his entire staff evacuated the city safely. But he fears the worst for his New Orleans office, near Lake Pontchartrain.

“New Orleans is in big trouble,” Fox told Pollstar. “I’m up here in Memphis now and I don’t know for sure, but I think my office is gone. Yesterday, I heard from different people it was dry, and so was the French Quarter, but now the Quarter even has two or three feet of water.

“It’s going to take six months to get New Orleans back to something like reality. They have no idea what they’re into there. I’ve been in New Orleans a long, long time. But 80 percent of the city’s underwater,” he said.

“All my staff got out and they’re scattered around the country. What we’re hearing is that they’re not going to let people back into the city. We don’t even know if, once they let people back in, when there will even be power. So there’s no rush to get back to the city to even see what we’ve got, if anything at all. It’s really a nightmare.”

Beaver Productions will remain up and running regardless, with offices in Memphis and Houston. “We’re going to leave it to Beaver to keep doing concerts until we’re able to get back into the city,” Fox said.

Though New Orleans has received the lion’s share of attention, some of the worst devastation took place just east, along the Mississippi and Alabama Gulf Coast.

The Mississippi Coast Coliseum in Biloxi, Miss., was reportedly designated as a shelter before Katrina hit. But by the afternoon of August 30th, a convoy of state law enforcement vehicles and boats “commandeered” the venue to use as a headquarters, The Clarion-Ledger of Jackson, Miss., reported.

Pollstar was unable to reach venue management either by telephone or e-mail at press time.

The region is the third-largest casino market in the country and virtually all its gaming venues were either wiped out or sustained massive damage. By law, casinos in the state must operate on water – either on the Mississippi River or on the Gulf Coast. Most floated on barges attached to resort facilities.

Biloxi’s Hard Rock Casino and concert venue were scheduled to open September 1st, but the casino barge and virtually all of the ground floor of the complex was gutted by the storm surge as Katrina hit shore. However, the venue’s 112-foot signature guitar sign escaped relatively unscathed.

The MGM Mirage-owned Beau Rivage Resort & Casino next door to the Hard Rock sustained “significant damage,” the company said in a statement.

Much less lucky were Harrah’s Entertainment’s two Grand Casinos in the area. The casino barge in Biloxi was “a complete loss” after coming unmoored and washing across U.S. 90. The casino in Gulfport was also severely damaged, Harrah’s CEO Gary Loveman told Bloomberg News.

According to reports throughout the region, Biloxi casinos including Casino Magic, Isle Of Capri, Treasure Island and the President Casino, along with several others, were pulled from moorings and washed ashore.

The President took out part of a Holiday Inn and a mausoleum before coming to rest near the Mississippi Coast Coliseum.

The hit to the casino business will be a significant one to Mississippi in general. The state’s 30 casinos generated about $2.8 billion in revenue and accounted for $330 million in tax revenues, according to the American Gaming Association.

The gaming industry is expected to respond by demanding legislation that will allow the casinos to move inland for what now are obvious safety considerations.

“I suspect they’ll talk to the Legislature about building on land,” Curt Follmer, senior VP and GM at Rainbow Hotel Casino, told The Clarion-Ledger.

Mississippi Gaming Commission executive director Larry Gregory toured the coast by helicopter and said the issue could be a major policy question for the state legislature in its next session.

The damage to the casinos is “of such a magnitude that it is beyond the normal expression of words,” Gregory told the paper.

Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco asked for prayers.

“That would be the best thing to calm our spirits and thank our Lord that we are survivors,” Blanco was quoted by the New Orleans Times-Picayune as saying. “Slowly, gradually, we will recover; we will survive; we will rebuild.”

– Deborah Speer