Attendance was 50,000 a day at NRG Park for the relocated Free Press Summer Fest.

The seventh annual Free Press Summer Fest music and arts festival in Houston came off without a hitch on June 6-7. Well, other than the fact that some quick decision-making helped the event to be moved from a submerged Eleanor Tinsley Park along Buffalo Bayou to the Yellow Lot 1 at NRG Park, home to the Houston Texans of the National Football League.

Ongoing floods caused by rains in the city were – surprise – the culprit for the move.

“Eleanor Tinsley Park had somewhere between 25 and 30 feet of water over the Memorial Day weekend,” said Jeff Gaines, senior assistant general manager at NRG Park. “It is undergoing a multi-million dollar renovation and was just flooded to capacity. Houston got stuck right in the middle of this torrential rainstorm and flooding was everywhere. It just wasn’t safe for the organizers to build the massive stages there that they needed for the show, even after the water receded.”

Gaines said the chain of events to move the festival started in earnest on Tuesday after rains pelted the area on Sunday and Memorial Day. “It all came together within about two or three days,” he said of the mammoth show which drew more than 50,000 each day.

“More information was swapped and a site visit was made on Wednesday,” Gaines added. “There was more information swapped and conference calls on Thursday and Friday. Steel beams were being delivered as the site was an ongoing work in progress with the multiple stages.”

Not only was the parking lot the site for 79 different acts, but the Park also had high school graduations and a boat show taking place.

“We had to coordinate with all our other events the week of the show and the weekend of the setup,” Gaines said. “We were just a very busy property.”

Busy, Gaines said, but a property that was only too willing to accommodate the festival.“We got a phone call from friends in the industry who said, look, we’ve got this challenge downtown. It’s really not safe for us to build this event. Is there a chance we can come to you and talk about it?

“There were a couple of things I didn’t want to have happen. I didn’t want any of the vendors to lose a contract and I didn’t want anybody that was scheduled to work not get a paycheck. We basically said let’s just replicate your event downtown at NRG Park. Bring your concessionaire, bring your security group, bring all of your service providers and we’ll make it work.”

Considering the week leading up to and the weekend of the festival itself was a whirlwind of activity and decisions, Gaines said he was pleased with the outcome.

“I’m very proud of what our staff did and very thankful that we work with such a great group of people at RedLight Promotions to pull this thing off,” he said. “The show came off very well.”

A helicopter hovers over Horner Ballpark in efforts to dry the field after torrential Texas rains.

That’s One Way To Dry A Field

Unable to alleviate its water-soaked baseball field through the traditional use of a tarp, Dallas Baptist University went with the novel approach of having a helicopter hover over its infield and outfield for the better part of four hours in order to get Horner Ballpark ready for the NCAA Regional Tournament on Friday, May 29. It was just one more story that plagued venues across the state as Texas recorded its wettest May ever.

“Earlier in the week we had looked at the forecast and it was in the back of our minds that we might have some weather issues about the time we were to get started playing,” said Brant Williams, director of athletic facilities. “Somebody threw out the idea about having a helicopter come and dry the field. We worked the numbers and found a private company that said they would do it. We put them in the schedule tentatively and decided we would pull the trigger when that decision needed to be made. That Friday morning was it. We made the phone call and they came.”

Williams said that the copter landed in the parking lot at 9 a.m. and the pilot met with officials to determine how to tackle the issue.

“He took off again just after 9:30 and began to just hover over the field and work from outfield to infield,” Williams said. “His back tail rotor puts off about 1,500 degrees. He hovered for three to four hours and I think it made some impact. If anything, it just brought more moisture to the top to let it keep drying out. If we did nothing, it would have taken three or four days to dry out naturally. Any help we could get to speed that process up we tried it.”

In addition to the aerial attack on the field, the university had about 15 grounds crew and construction workers and subcontractors already on campus using blowers to blow the water to the outside edge of the diamond, a move that Williams was reluctant to do.

“I didn’t know if it made sense just for the mess,” he said. “You’re trying to clean one mess but not make another. When you start squeegeeing water to the warning track it’s already saturated and gone, (so) what do you do with the water when you get it there? When we started doing it, it seemed to work. Again, you’re dealing with almost hundreds of thousands of gallons of water so pushing water that far over 200 to 300 feet … it’s not an easy task. Once you start pushing it, it’s going to work its way back around. You’re only going to push off a minimal amount each time.”

Williams and NCAA site representatives were at the stadium until 10 p.m. on Thursday night before games were to get underway the next day. The crew applied some conditioner to soak up the moisture from the previous rains earlier on Thursday, but showers that arrived late that afternoon “pretty much knocked us back to square one again,” Williams said. “We kept going and put out another two pallets of Diamond Pro calcined clay. We saw the radar in west Texas and it was not looking promising. We just shut it down for the night and hoped for the best. We ended up getting 4 ¼ inches of rain that night.”

Williams said that the four teams in the regional, including the host university, got in a brief practice Thursday night in the infield but were not able to hit full swings on the field. He added that the teams and coaches were understanding and polite about the playing field concerns and the crew’s efforts to make the field playable. By Friday morning some 80 people were on the field working furiously to get it as dry as possible. The start time for the first Friday game did not miss the 1:30 p.m. target by much.

Saturday was another story as games were completely rained out. Sunday brought something new and rarely seen in Texas the previous two weeks – sun. Despite Mother Nature finally smiling for the first time in days, Williams said that the field condition that day was probably the worst.

“We had just finally gotten to see the water moving subsurfacely and we’re probably only two or three feet from the water table, especially if we get a major rain like that. We are in a low-lying area in a valley between two hills and the runoff takes a long time. So Sunday we really started to see the problems of a 4 ¾-inch rain followed by another ½-inch rain the night after.”

Nonetheless, three games were played on Sunday, muddy uniforms and all, while two more concluded the tournament on Monday. For Williams, who has worked at DBU for 10 years since earning his undergraduate degree at the school in general studies, a master’s in leadership studies and an online master’s from Penn State University in turf grass management, the weekend was not one to forget.

“Some text messages at 5 a.m. (Friday) woke me up,” he said. “I squinted at the phone, looked at the pictures someone had sent who had gone to the stadium about 4:30 to check on the damage and was like, oh well. It’s happened like this before, but not with a regional the same day.”

More Texas College Regional Woes

Back in Houston, that city has also been plagued by record-setting rainstorms and that played havoc in the NCAA Regional Tournament at the University of Houston’s Cougar Field. Six pop-up tents, a table and a couple of chairs that fell from the roof of the press box were just some of the items that were either lost or damaged during storms at the stadium.

“The weather we received on Saturday had an impact not only on the games but some of our setup,” said Bruce Gregory, who works in the athletic department at the university in game operations and served as the tournament director for the regional. “The wind was blowing so strong that it started blowing the rain into the press box.”

The Friday games were played before 3 ½ inches of rain in 30 minutes soaked the stadium and caused the first game on Saturday to be suspended in the top of the fourth inning following a 2 hour, 49 minute delay due also to lightning.

“We communicated with administrators from both teams that were on site for the first game and they relayed the information to the coaches and teams,” Gregory said. “The two teams that had the later game were kept up-to-date by phone and never left their hotel before the final call to cancel was made so they stayed safe and dry.”

Gregory said his crew utilizes the Schneider electric sentry weather detection system and has established three perimeter warning notifications. He will receive notification once lightning is within 30 miles and then again when it is inside of 20 miles. Once it is inside of 20 miles the umpires are notified that it is in the area and severe weather preparation protocol is implemented. Once lightning strikes inside of eight miles both teams are pulled off the field and evacuate the stadium. The weather system continually updates the 30-minute countdown with every strike, so until the stadium gets an “all clear” within the eight-mile radius play is not resumed.

“The field is turf and drains extremely well so it held up really well,” Gregory said. “We had 10 inches of rain Monday night and we practiced on it Tuesday afternoon (in advance of the tournament). We had all that rain on Saturday but the field was perfect on Sunday for play.”

The roads around Cougar Field were flooded and lightning strikes were a common occurrence.
“We were watching the local news and receiving reports that they were closing roads and highways around Houston due to flooding,” Gregory said. “One street outside of the stadium started to flood and vehicles could not pass through. One got stuck and had to be towed.”

Interviewed for this article: Jeff Gaines, (832) 667-1771; Bruce Gregory, (713) 743-8939; Brant Williams, (214) 333-5569