Date: September 7, 2005

Outside of New Orleans, the hardest hit major venue may have been the Mississippi Coast Coliseum & Convention Center in Biloxi, which endured 5 feet of rushing water through the venues when Hurricane Katrina slammed into the coast Aug. 29.

“We’re still digging out from under the debris and the aftermath,” said Matt McDonnell, assistant executive director of the complex. “The situation is where we’re going to have to replace all the electrical systems that originate on the first floor level; we’re going to have to come in and replace all our dressing rooms, restrooms, offices, convention center space. There’s a lot of work to be done.”

At press time, local search and rescue teams, hazardous waste containment agencies, and power companies are digging through the rubble. But Coliseum management plans to be set up in trailers in the parking lot within the next few days. “We will be back, bigger and stronger because of it,” McDonnell said. “Right now that’s what we live by — we have to. We have to breathe that, sleep that, eat that.”

Payroll went out to employees this week and will go out next week, but that will need to be assessed during the recovery, McDonnell said. They are working with their insurance company and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) on funding the repairs.

The ECHL Mississippi Sea Wolves minor league hockey team will most likely relocate to Mobile, Ala., for the 2005-2006 season, but will be back in 2007, McDonnell said. And the Coliseum’s newly announced Arena Football League tenant team will probably be held off for a season, he said. All upcoming shows are cancelled, including Hank Williams Jr., Neil Diamond and Stars of the Moscow Circus.

A $68 million expansion of the convention center is also on indefinite hold, but other renovation plans have been unexpectedly fast-tracked by the disaster.

All but two of the complex’s staff had been accounted for as of press time, but McDonnell assumes they are safe. McDonnell lost his home in the storm, and he and his wife are bunking at a retirement home in Ocean Springs, where he is a city administrator, while they look for a rental unit. Their children are staying with relatives in Alabama.

McDonnell said he wants to thank those in the venue management industry who have offered assistance during this disaster, and he hopes they will be able to help raise funds to reopen his venue’s doors.

On Sept. 5, Marco Perez, general manager of Kiefer UNO Lakefront Arena, New Orleans, was headed to Metairie to survey things on the homefront. He and his family had evacuated New Orleans prior to Hurricane Katrina and are staying with family in Houston. Like half a million other people, he took the opportunity offered Tuesday to check out his home at least, leaving Houston in the wee hours to make it to Metairie, visit and attempt to disinfect his home there, and get out again by the 6 p.m. curfew.

Calling on his way back, stuck in 5-mile-per-hour traffic in Baton Rouge, Perez was optimistic. He was told it would be weeks before the light poles were back up, yet they already were up in Metairie, he said. As he headed out, lines of trucks and workers were headed in to New Orleans to rebuild.

He still doesn’t know the extent of the damage at the Kiefer UNO Lakefront Arena. The arena is on high ground, but has undoubtedly sustained some water damage. Mold is a major issue for every property, because unlike the normal flood scenario, they are not able to get in and fight it back immediately after the disaster. He could see in his home that mold was growing upward.

Perez spent the first few days after Katrina finding employees. About 40 full-time employees are still on the UNO payroll, receiving electronic deposits. Most are covered by special leave provisions for about a month and some have annual leave stored up. No further decisions regarding payroll will be addressed until they know when they can get back to work. Perez has been helping employees put their personal affairs in order, making sure they realize they can get three- to five-month waivers on mortgage and credit card payments. Even though they are being paid, they do not yet know what monies they will need to recover, he pointed out.

Perez said momentum is building to turn the annual motorcycle rally held at UNO in October into a fundraiser on campus. It might be a stretch, but motorcyclists from all over the country are getting behind the idea. “If we can get to the arena, we can do it,” Perez said. The campus remained above water and the road in is dry.

He had to cancel several upcoming concerts, including Kelly Clarkson, who had already been rescheduled due to Hurricane Dennis. Juan Gabriel was also cancelled. World Wrestling Entertainment, a pay-per-view event, was also cancelled. He sent WWE an e-mail, and he hadn’t yet talked with the Harlem Globetrotters, but that’s also likely a cancellation, he said.

The university announced that the basketball team would play in Tyler, Texas, keeping the UNO spirit alive.

Perez has set up an alternate e-mail address, mperez@unoupdate.net. His UNO cell phone and e-mail are still down. Text messaging is the most reliable form of communication, he said. “That’s a whole story on its own.

Like everyone from the flooded, devastated city, Perez was glued to news reports, looking for photos of his arena, his home, his friends, his life, and writing about it. “This particular entry was brought on by the telethon on MSNBC,” he wrote days after the devastation. “ I was ready to watch the traditional footage of devastation. I was ready to hear some good old-fashioned music from various artists — some of whom have performed in the Lakefront Arena. Instead? Ole Harry Connick and his orchestra began to play a heart-wrenching jazz-funeral type number. Wow. I froze. Then I teared up and sobbed like an idiot. For Jazz! I cried for Jazz Music. Me! Good gosh these emotions are hard to deal with. But for some odd reason putting them to paper, screen that is, just helps.

“UNO and New Orleans will survive this terrible disaster,” Perez wrote. “The spirit that makes New Orleans such a great place lives within each of us.

He added that donations can be sent to UNO Recovery Fund For Lakefront Arena, c/o UNO Foundation, 3810 West Lakeshore Drive, Baton Rouge, LA 70804. Perez and his family are temporarily housed at 2402 South Mystic Meadows, Houston, TX 77021.

The International Association of Assembly Managers (IAAM) plans to have a clearinghouse for information on members and member venues set up shortly, according to Dexter King, executive director of the venue managers’ association. “I talked to people last Saturday that were in desperate need of more experienced event coordinators. When I talked to the next general managers, they said they have some extra [and said], ‘I’ll send them there. What I need is plumbers,’” King said. “How can we as an organization assist all the members?

King is asking venues to submit information to IAAM via e-mail. “A lot of lack of ability to get things on the ground or working really well stems from telephones not working, cell phones not working, e-mail not working, not having the ability to communicate with each other. There has to be a failsafe process put in place to overcome that deficiency,” he said.

King was disappointed with a disorganized conference call between the private sector and FEMA that broke down into parties interrupting each other. “Just listening to them, you can understand the magnitude of how dysfunctional [communication channels are, and how] this massive array of things that are happening impacts all of us.”

Neither IAAM nor Venues Today has been able to reach Jimmie Fore, general manager of the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center in New Orleans, where tens of thousands of storm refugees flocked and endured some of the greatest hardship. The venue was not designated as a shelter, but it was on high ground, so residents were attracted to the area. Due to downed communications, rescue workers did not know people were there until television news covered the chaotic scene.

As of yesterday, King planned to seek Federal help in locating Fore and his top managers.

Interviewed for this story: Matt McDonnell, (228) 297-3929; Dexter King, (972) 906-7441; Marco Perez, mperez@unoupdate.net