Inside The Governors Ball Evacuation
Taylor Hill / Getty Images for Governors Ball – Nas
Nas was one of the few artists able to play day 3 of Governors Ball on Randall’s Island in New York City June 2 before bad weather forced its eventual evacuation.
The elements interfered with a music festival at New York City’s Randall’s Island yet again. This time, pockets of severe weather delayed the opening of Governors Ball’s third day June 2 until 6:30 p.m. and, after about three hours of programming, forced the event’s cancellation and evacuation before scheduled performances by marquee acts including The Strokes and SZA.
Though artists including Nas and Louis The Child were able to perform during the event’s limited hours of operation on Sunday, several others, such as Charli XCX, Kaytranada and Soccer Mommy saw their sets canceled.
From sunrise Sunday, Governors Ball and parent company Founders Entertainment knew the day would be difficult. Tom Russell, Governors Ball co-founder and Founders Entertainment partner, says organizers received their first weather reports at 5:30 a.m. on show day and forecasts of a “severe” weather event from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. held steady throughout the morning.
Weather reports from Governors Ball’s service WeatherOps and other forecasting resources suggested a “weather event” in the late afternoon, Russell says, followed by a “cold front that would reduce the likelihood of severe weather for the rest of the day.”
Hence, the decision to postpone doors until after the late afternoon storm, then stage programming from 6:30 p.m. to 11:30 p.m. In a Reddit AMA on June 4, Russell shared weather reports from 6:53 p.m. on Sunday indicating a clear forecast until late Monday morning.
But weather is fickle and “two weak weather cells … combined unexpectedly” over neighboring New Jersey early Sunday evening. At that point, Founders Entertainment and local agencies, including the Department of Parks and Recreation, the Mayor’s Office of Special Events, the New York Police Department and the Metropolitan Transit Authority, determined the festival’s emergency management plan had to be implemented. “We had to follow it, we have no choice,” Russell says. “The safety of our fans is paramount and we have to act immediately once we have that data.”
It’s a common misconception that rain alone forces such a decision. “The biggest threats for us are lightning and wind,” Russell says. “Whenever we see wind in excess of 40 miles per hour or lightning within a very close proximity, we get ready for an evacuation.”
More problems allegedly arose when Governors Ball ceased programming and directed fans to evacuate the festival premises. Located in the East River, between the boroughs of Manhattan, Queens and the Bronx, disembarking Randall’s Island can be logistically challenging even under ideal conditions – Russell says it’s “always the trickiest part about the festival” – and with narrow walkways on Robert F. Kennedy Bridge and a finite number of ferries and MTA buses, crowds quickly built up, according to social media reports.
“Every year we increase our signage, our staffing, our operations staff, but when it comes to evacuating or severe weather, you can never have enough,” Russell says. “But I will say that at the end of the night, when we had a regroup with all of the agencies, everybody was thrilled with how things went.” Russell lauds the organizers and agencies he collaborates with as “the very best in the business … because of that, I wouldn’t do anything differently if I could go back in time.”
Founders has vowed to issue refunds – total for Sunday ticketholders and one-third for fans who bought three-day passes – and Russell emphasizes the company’s transparency: “We’re telling the truth and we’re not hiding a single thing.” He also says that Founders, which famously launched Queens festival The Meadows in October 2016 and booked Kanye West months after the cancellation of his Governors Ball appearance, is looking into doing events with some of this year’s performers, “especially” The Strokes. Adds Russell: “Nothing would make us happier.”
As for Founders, the company has a cancellation policy with Integro Insurance Brokers that Russell describes as “not cheap.” And, as with a similar evacuation of now suspended Goldenvoice festival Panorama, also staged on Randall’s Island, municipal idiosyncrasies complicate festivals staged in the city. Lollapalooza has memorably evacuated and repopulated its premises in Chicago’s Grant Park on several occasions; in New York, festival contracts with the city make such a procedure subject to the Parks Commissioner.
According to a representative from the Parks Department, contractual language allows re-entry “unless it would pose an unreasonable danger to patrons and staff;” the event’s scale and an inability to shelter such a large crowd in inclement weather were insurmountable obstacles. “Events evacuated during the day (daylight hours) and with a smaller-scaled crowd present a possible different outcome,” the representative explained.
Although the event has been weather-plagued before, such as when the full Sunday date (including a Kanye West headlining set) was canceled in 2016, Russell dismisses any suggestion that the first weekend of June is cursed.
“If you look at Gov Ball’s history, it has only rained on 25% of the festival days,” he says. “Specific weather doesn’t stick to specific weekends – that’s not the way Mother Nature works.”
In fact, Governors Ball, which Russell calls “the official start to summer in New York City,” is already booked for
June 5-7, 2020; next year will mark the festival’s 10th annual installment. “We’re not going anywhere,” he says. “We’re going to be putting on this festival when we’re senior citizens and we have a sponsorship with AARP. We’re in this for the long run, and we’re going to bob and weave with what Mother Nature has.”
The other two days of Governors Ball featured Tyler, The Creator, Lil Wayne, Brockhampton, Florence + The Machine, Major Lazer, The 1975, Kacey Musgraves and many others May 31 and June 1. The festival last reported boxoffice numbers to Pollstar in 2016, when it sold 47,581 tickets and grossed just under $5.3 million. The festival is a Live Nation partner.