Managinga building that throngs of people visit on a regular basis is achallenge for any facility professional. Safety, security, andmaintenance issues all share a front seat in the successful operationof such a venue.
Since 1985, the Ernest N. MorialConvention Center (renamed as such in 1992 for the late New Orleansmayor who championed its construction) has served as the location for awide variety of events put on by an even wider variety oforganizations. Industry trade shows, association conferences, consumerevents, sports competitions, and community gatherings have attractedthousands of people to the convention center each year for the past 22years.
But in August 2005, when Hurricane Katrina descended uponthe Gulf Coast region, this flurry of activity was forced to ascreeching halt—at least for the next five and half months. Though theconvention center was not designated as an official shelter, some ofthe people displaced by the storm and the subsequent flooding fromlevee failure (which occurred on Monday, August 29, 2005) soughtshelter at the facility.
It is estimated that between 20,000to 25,000 people occupied the convention center during the weekfollowing the storm. A lack of food, water, electricity, and securitycontributed to a chaotic scenario at times as those thousands of peopleco-existed while waiting for authorities to rescue them from the city.
“Wewere not designated to be a shelter of any sort, so when peoplestarting arriving, we were ill prepared,” says Jerry Frances, assistantgeneral manager at the convention center. “We had no power. We had nofood. We had no water. We just didn’t expect it. We were desperate totry and help, but we had no resources.”
The convention center was spared the flooding that plagued other areas of the city, because it is
sited on the some of the highest ground in New Orleans.Additionally, the staff took care to mitigate damage from the stormbefore it arrived.
“We have a storm preparation plan that is put into effectwhenever we have a threat,” says Frances, who was director ofoperations at the time. “The standard procedure was to store insideanything from outside that could possibly get blown around and causedamage. The staff also made sure the roof was clear. Preparations alsoinvolved topping off the fuel tanks in our generators and fire pumps.
“Wealso do internal checks to make sure all of our safety systems areintact. We basically go down a checklist in order to prevent whateverwe can,” says Frances.
While the preparations helped to keepmost threats at bay, there were some areas of the convention centerthat sustained damage from the elements. “We had some broken canopyglass and storefront windows,” explains Frances. “There was also someroof damage, mostly caused by flying debris. And some intakes on theroof were blown off, which allowed some rainwater to get inside an areaof the facility.
“We assessed the situation on that Monday night andthought that we had come out pretty well. The direct storm damage wasactually fairly minimal,” says Frances. “The majority of the damagecame from the people who were seeking shelter and rescue [after areasof the city were flooded].”
Under the direction of theconvention center’s previous president, Jimmie D. Fore, Frances workedalongside convention center staff members to maintain control of thefacility as the power went out and members of the public streamed in.
Explainingthat there was a minimal number of security staff on site at the time,Frances recalls, “The people basically came in and made themselves athome. There was no way to police it.” He eventually departed onWednesday evening—two days after the city had been inundated withflooding—and returned the following week.
Navigating A Recovery
TheNational Guard arrived at the convention center on Thursday. Severalthousand troops, along with other law enforcement personnel, helped torestore some order to the facility. However, they were occupying theconvention center as a home base for citywide operations rather thanactively patrolling the facility itself.
Still, the military presence helped the situation to anextent. “They were housed in the exhibit hall and in the back of thebuilding,” explains Frances. “They also manned a security gate we havein the back.”
Also arriving on Thursday was a much awaitedcaravan of busses to transport people away. It is estimated that about15,000 people left during that time, with the remainder departing twodays later on Saturday, September 3.
When Frances returnedto the convention center the next week, he recalls an overwhelmingsight: “When we saw the amount of debris, the first thought was ‘Wow.’It is overwhelming when you have a building of this size, and all thepublic areas have some sort of debris.”
The exterior was littered with chairs taken from insidethe building as well as from nearby hotels. Food wrappers, bottles, anda plethora of other items used by the thousands of people who werewaiting for assistance were strewn all around.
The insideof the convention center contained a similarly overwhelming scene.Massive amounts of debris had been discarded all around the facility.And the flooring and carpeting were virtually ruined. Additionally,much of the furniture had undergone heavy use by those who took refugein the building.
In tackling the actual clean up, Francesquips, “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.” So afterensuring the building was secure, Frances began the task of workingwith the convention authority’s insurance company to assess the damageand create a recovery game plan.
“Our insurance company, Zurich, was wonderful,” saysFrances. “They brought in a third party company, U.S. Risk Management,which came and took air samples. They also did surface testing forvarious amounts of mold, mildew, and bacteria. They tested every squarefoot of this building to make sure it was safe.”
Therainwater that had made its way into the facility did cause some moldgrowth, since the moisture was sitting for close to a week without anyair conditioning or ventilation in operation. “Surprisingly enoughthough,” says Frances, “we had very little problems with the airquality testing that was done. And there were very few areas thatneeded to be scrubbed.
While the air sample and surfacetests were being done, others set to work taking up all the carpets andcleaning all the walls and slabs in the facility. It was alsodetermined that all kitchens and restrooms would be cleaned to hospitalgrade level.
Francesand his staff worked diligently to begin the recovery process once backon site and recalls the central challenge being a “matter of having allthose people in there and trying to get things done without peoplestepping on each other. We had to make sure the contractors stayed outof the areas where the military was, because someone was alwayssleeping in one of the halls. We tried to be as accommodating as wecould, because we were so grateful that they came to help.”
The Silver Lining
Ifthere was any positive side to the damage the convention centersustained, it was that the situation gave management the opportunity toupdate the facility in terms of aesthetics. A plan for this was alreadyin motion, but the storm and its aftereffects expedited itsimplementation.
In 2005, the conventioncenter had contracted with the Atlanta office of TVS Architects todesign an expansion—referred to as Phase IV, with a redesign of theexisting Phases I, II, and III buildings to follow. But with the scopeof repairs to be done after the storm, plans for Phase IV were put onhold and the focus turned to redesigning the existing facilities.
“TVSimmediately turned its attention to the existing facility,” recallsFrances. “It looked at developing carpet patterns and fabrics for themeeting room chairs and ballroom chairs. TVS also created a new colorpalette for the whole building. There was a lot of terracotta at thatpoint—and there are still some remnants of that palette—but we wantedto get away from that and have something more soothing and current.”
Francesexplains that the convention center had also previously entered into acontract with the general contractor that built Phases II and III. Thisallowed it to begin work on other areas of the building while theinterior design decisions were being made.
“There wereparallel tracks occurring—working on design, on repairs, withmanufacturers, and so on, so we would all wind up at the same place atthe same time when it was done,” Frances recalls.
“Additionally,the governor had signed an emergency order that allowed us to negotiaterather than go out to bid as we typically would have to,” he says. “So,as the contractor began sealing the outside of the building where wehad broken glass and roof damage, we had cleaning going on inside aswell.
“We learned a lot,” Frances continues. “I probablygained 20 years of experience in three months. It was something thatyou never expect, but once you get into it, you almost put it onautomatic pilot. Instincts take over to a certain extent. You juststart at the beginning and work through it. Luckily, I was blessed inthat I had very little damage at my home, so I wasn’t preoccupied withhaving to rebuild my home as well as having to rebuild the building.”
Lessthan two months after operations were forced to a standstill, at leastfour organizations had committed to keeping their 2006 events at thefacility. The first would be a longtime client, the Helen BrettInternational Jewelry/Gift Merchandise Show in February.
“This would occur in the Phase II section,” says Frances.“The lobby would be done there then, since it was terrazzo, and thecarpeted areas would not be ready. We set a target to be done with thatarea for that date in February, and we did it.
“The next goalwas to open up Phases II and III, as well as the meeting room levels,”he continues. “We saved Phase I for last, because we didn’t have anyshows scheduled in there until November.”
In November 2006,the convention center had officially completed the restoration. Withthe Phase IV expansion on hold indefinitely, the management staffcontinues to focus on providing a state of the art facility to existingand potential clients.
“We are redirecting those fundsslated for Phase IV to do more interior renovations in Phase I thatwill attract more corporate and high end business,” explains Frances.“Part of the Phase IV plan was not just to create more space, but tocreate high end space. This will involve more sophisticated finishesand furnishings for a boardroom look. We will also upgrade technology.”
Headingup these and other plans for the convention center’s future is RobertJohnson, who came on board as president and general manager inSeptember 2007. While he was not working there during the recoveryperiod, Johnson is no stranger to managing a facility in New Orleans.Having served as general manager of the Louisiana Superdome in the cityfrom 1985 to 1995, he was able to hit the ground running.
“New Orleans is the world’s largest small city or theworld’s smallest large city, depending on how you look at it,” saysJohnson. “The tourism industry is a small community, so I was familiarwith most everyone who was involved in it and is still involved in it.You become very familiar with how things work in the capital and BatonRouge and with the city. So the learning curve has been very short.
“Ithas been great to get back involved with the same people who broughtthe tourism community together 25 years ago during the downturn of theoil and gas industries,” Johnson continues. “Those are the same peoplewho have survived the challenges of the last several years, and they’restill here and everybody’s paddling as hard as they can. I’m happy tobe in the canoe paddling with them, because New Orleans is such a greatdestination.”
In addition to the focus on technologyupgrades, Johnson has some ideas about how to incorporate an artprogram into the space. “Whatever the format may be, I want [the artprogram] to reflect our local flavor, so that when we have visitors inour building, they’re immersed in New Orleans.”
Amidst allthe improvements at the convention center, Johnson and Frances have notneglected to address how to protect the facility should anotherpost-Katrina scenario occur. “We are going to become a headquarters forfirst responders,” explains Johnson. “So, we will have built inprotection.”
Frances adds, “We have not had any problems withstorms in the past two years, but we have worked very closely withHomeland Security and the State Office of Emergency Preparedness tocome up with plans to secure the building.”
This article was based on interviews with Frances and Johnson.
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Project: Ernest N. Morial Convention Center.
Location: New Orleans, LA.
Type of Project: Restoration/Renovation.
Function of Facility: Conventions/Trade Shows/Consumer Shows.
Facility Owner: Ernest N. Morial New Orleans Exhibition Hall Authority.
Facility/General Manager: President Bob Johnson; Assistant General Manager Jerry Frances.
Square Footage: 3.1 million square feet of enclosed space, of which 1.1 million square feet is contiguous exhibit hall space.
Project Timetable: 12 months total, with reopening first phase in six months.
Budget: $60 million.
Cost Per Square Foot: $19.35.
Interior Designer: TVS Interiors.
General Contractor/Construction Manager: Broadmoor Construction, LLC.
Furniture: Edgemold Products; WISH/INDX; Mity-Lite; Shelby Williams/CF Group; SICO; Virco.
Seating: MTS Seating.
Flooring: DALTile; Ceramic Technics.
Carpet: Brinton’s of London; Tandus.
Ceilings: U.S. Gypsum.
Wallcoverings: Valley Forge Fabrics.
Surfacing: American Tile and Terrazzo.
Movable Walls: HUFCOR.
Meeting Room Signage: ASI Modulex.
Restroom Accessories: American Specialty; Kohler.
Canopy Glazing: GE-Lexan MR10.
Building Management System: Honeywell.
CCTV: March Networks; Pelco.
Fire Alarms: Honeywell.
Lighting (lamps): GE; Philips.
Ballasts: Advance Ballasts.
Backup Power: ONAN/Caterpillar (equipment for emergency generator repairs).
Roofing System: Carlisle EDPM; CENTRIA metal panels.
Exit Lights: Lithonia.
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