SMG Plays Major Role After Katrina

Three SMG maintenance engineers spent six days deep inside the Louisiana Superdome, not only riding out Hurricane Katrina with some 20,000 other displaced New Orleanians, but making sure emergency generators kept the juice flowing for lights and medical equipment, sandbagging doorways and measuring the rise in the floodwaters outside.

The National Guard finally told them to go back to Baton Rouge, La., September 1st; they’d done all they could.

So, after taking a day off to eat, clean up and rest, the trio volunteered to do it again – this time at the Houston Astrodome, another SMG-managed building.

That kind of teamwork and experience is what’s made it possible for facility management giant SMG to shoulder the burden of operating more than a dozen major evacuation centers, rescue and infrastructure staging areas and even an animal rescue shelter in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, according to Glenn Mon, SMG’s exec VP in charge of stadiums and arenas.

“That’s one of the great things about SMG as a company. We do have previous experience, not that anyone really wants to have experience with this sort of thing,” Mon told Pollstar. “The Superdome was the shelter of last resort during Hurricane Georges. Our facility in Pensacola, Fla., 16 months ago dealt with the aftermath of Ivan, then earlier this year a little bit with Hurricane Dennis. So we know what’s to be expected.

“Our folks who have to cooperate and utilize their facilities as shelters have a template as far as operations, what they should do and what their role is. The real strength of our organization is we’re able to import people from other SMG facilities to help our local staffs.”

That experience certainly came in handy as SMG took on the major burden of Katrina’s aftermath. Even after the evacuation of the Superdome, Mon estimated that more than 40,000 hurricane survivors were being housed in SMG facilities at press time.

Those facilities stretch from Pensacola to Albuquerque, N.M. They also house utility workers trying to restore power to New Orleans, and the U.S. Army’s 82nd Airborne Division and National Guard units back at the Superdome; many of them are operating despite sustaining damage or otherwise being affected by Katrina.

Buildings called into service include the Superdome, Astrodome, New Orleans Arena, the New Orleans Cultural Center and Pontchartrain Center in Kenner, La. Other buildings pressed into service include the Lamar Dixon Expo Center, Baton Rouge River Center, CenturyTel Center (Bossier City, La.), Ford Park (Beaumont, Texas), Reliant Park (Houston), Mobile Civic Center and Convention Center (Alabama), and the Pensacola Civic Center in Florida.

Other SMG facilities that are operating as shelters include the Albuquerque Convention Center, the El Paso Convention Centerand the Palmetto Expo Center in Greenfield, S.C. Three others are on standby to possibly open as shelters if necessary: the Topeka, Kan., Expo Center, the Peoria Civic Center in Illinois and the Evansville Auditorium in Indiana.

Of particular concern has been the Superdome, which opened in 1975 and has hosted a record nine Super Bowl games. The future of the massive home of the New Orleans Saints pro football team may be in doubt in the post-Katrina landscape.

But despite news reports citing “unnamed” officials declaring the Superdome was to be demolished and rebuilt, Mon said that any such talk was nothing but speculation.

“That is somebody’s opinion,” Mon said. “The definitive determination of the condition of the Superdome cannot be made until we are able to send an assessment team in there. Prior to doing an assessment, we have to get clearance to get in there. Once we do get clearance, we have to get the place cleaned up.

“Until that is done, nobody can say with any certainty what the condition of the Dome is, what needs to be repaired and how long it will take to be repaired. But for anyone to categorically say the Dome needs to be torn down, that’s somebody’s opinion with no basis in fact whatsoever.”

The Saints were still in search of an alternate “home” field at press time, but were heavily tipped to be favoring Tiger Stadium at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. They made their preseason practice home at the Alamodome in San Antonio, Texas, and moved their home opener with the N.Y. Giants to the Meadowlands Sports Complex in East Rutherford, N.J.

Another SMG facility, Houston’s Reliant Park, offered its facilities for the Saints home opener as well.

It might have made sense, as several Saints players visited evacuees after their arrival at the Reliant Arena shelter – and three SMG facilities house more than 25,000 displaced residents in Houston alone, including those three SMG maintenance engineers.

Their well-being, along with other SMG staff, is also a major concern for Mon and SMG president/CEO Wes Westley.

“First and foremost, all employees from our facilities are safe,” Westley told Pollstar via e-mail. “SMG is working with the State of Louisiana to provide compensation to all affected employees. SMG facilitated cash payrolls since many employees had no means to cash checks.”

The company is also working with insurers and 401(k) administrators to make sure those who have been displaced or choose to transfer to another location have benefits readily available.

“I must commend the SMG employees who are working around the clock to assist evacuees, the Red Cross, FEMA and others,” Westley added. “Some of these employees have lost their own homes and are themselves evacuees.”

— Deborah Speer