Coping with Flooding: Sports Events and Commissions in Louisiana Soldiering On
24 Aug, 2016By: Mary Helen Sprecher
It was probably the thing furthest from the minds of Louisiana residents who were scrambling to save loved ones, pets and belongings from flooded homes. It might have been so far down on the list of priorities that it didn’t even register with most people. But when floodwaters started disrupting sports events, planners also had to go into crisis mode. And that meant being faced with two options: rescheduling or cancelling.
Rescheduling is always the most optimistic option, but time was not on the side of Louisiana. Over 30 inches of rain fell within 72 hours, and every Interstate in Baton Route had to be closed. Active rescues were underway. Sports really didn’t have a chance. After all, the middle of August is a busy time everywhere – regardless of the weather. Kids are getting ready to go back to school. Summer sports are wrapping up and many schools already have fields, gyms and other facilities busy, so it’s not easy to relocate events.
That meant cancellations – a lot of them. Parishes immediately designated in the federal disaster declaration were Acadia, Ascension, Avoyelles, East Baton Rouge, East Feliciana, Evangeline, Iberia, Iberville, Jefferson Davis, Lafayette, Livingston, Pointe Coupee, St. Helena, St. Landry, St. Martin, St. Tammany, Tangipahoa, Vermilion, Washington and West Feliciana parishes. Damage assessments were continuing for other parishes, and it was likely the list would increase.
In short, a lot of sports, a lot of cancellations and a lot of crises.
“There’s a lot of challenges ahead,” said Eric Engemann of the Baton Rouge Area Sports Foundation, “but at least the water is running away from us for the most part. The biggest part is trying to figure out where we go from here.”
In addition to flooded homes and businesses, said Engemann, one of the most significant challenges to the sports scene could be found at the high school level.
“You had high school sports ready to start, but a lot of schools have lost their gyms completely. Some of those schools had some really beautiful facilities,” he added, and paused. “Some had turf football fields. There’s no telling when those will be ready to play on again. It’s going to be hard for schools to field teams.”
While many sports fields in Baton Rouge are natural grass and will dry out in time, other facilities such as soft tennis courts, gyms, field houses, running tracks and of course, the aforementioned turf fields will be a total loss.
The Bluffs on Thompson Creek, a golf course located in St. Francisville, Louisiana, also took a hit, said Engemann, when an adjacent creek rose and temporarily swamped part of the area.
Beyond the immediate problems of damaged facilities, though, was the threat to other aspects of the hospitality industry. Many hotels are accommodating disaster relief workers and the main convention center, the Baton Rouge River Center, has been converted to a shelter for those whose homes were destroyed.
“We’re working on some contingency plans,” said Engemann, “and we’re trying to make some alternate arrangements. We didn’t have much on the schedule here in August. We do have a USA Weightlifting event in September and we’re going to try to make it work.”
In Tangipahoa Parish, the Tangipahoa Convention & Visitors Bureau has modified its website to include links to information on road closures and disaster assistance.
“We’re very fortunate in Tangipahoa,” said Carla Tate. “The north end of the parish took a big hit, and quite a few businesses and homes were involved. Then on the east end of the parish, the river flooded, but the central part came out okay. We haven’t had to cancel any events.”
Most of Tangipahoa’s hotels, she notes, are on the south end of the parish.
“We have a soccer tournament next weekend at Chapappeele Sports Park and we’re still working on that,” she said. “The park is really saturated so it has to dry out.”
Both Baton Rouge and Tangipahoa are getting questions from those in other areas about how to help in the crisis. Both are referring callers to the American Red Cross. In addition, Baton Rouge is asking people to contact the Baton Rouge Area Foundation; Tangipahoa is asking them to contact the Louisiana Association of United Ways.
Other sports events in Louisiana also suffered. According to sources at NCAA, Louisiana State University outright cancelled its media day and fan days for all sports over the weekend of August 13th and 14th as well as rescheduled a soccer exhibition game in attempts to keep media officials, players and anyone else involved safe and off the roads. The hashtag of #AllforLA started spiking in popularity as, first, the athletic department, then students, alumni, fans and more, began generating messages of sympathy and respect for the area. (Some of those are reflected here.)
Flooding in South Louisiana also forced the cancellation of a home exhibition soccer match between Northwestern State and UL Lafayette. The Ragin' Cajuns were unable to make the trip to Natchitoches, so it was decided that NSU would begin its regular season later that week at Little Rock. The Lady Demons' home opener, meanwhile, was set for Sept. 2 against Jackson State.
Then the ripple effect kicked in as Columbia, South Carolina, announced efforts to collect items to assist the residents of Baton Rouge, repaying efforts by LSU and the Louisiana capital city in the wake of devastating flooding in Columbia last fall. An article in the Post and Courier noted that University president Harris Pastides had announced that USC’ s football equipment truck would be stationed at four different locations during the week week to gather items to be transported to Baton Rouge. One of the locations was Williams-Brice Stadium.
"LSU was so gracious to assist us in our time of need," Pastides said in a release. "Now it is our turn to help our SEC friends. I encourage all Gamecocks to drop off items needed for the Baton Rouge flood relief."
In the aftermath of flooding in South Carolina last October, LSU hosted a football game against the Gamecocks originally scheduled for Williams-Brice. LSU made a donation and collected money toward Palmetto State relief efforts and Tigers running back Leonard Fournette raised $101,000 for flood victims by auctioning his jersey from the relocated USC game.
Other event organizers stepped up as well. The Louisiana Marathon, scheduled to run next in January 2017, turned its site into a resource for how to help. The event’s organizing committee listed everything from shelters for residents to drop-off sites for donations. The site noted that organizers had heard from runners, volunteers, spectators, fans of the Louisiana Marathon, Mississippi Gulf Coast Marathon, Freshjunkie Race Productions and more, and thanked all endurance event professionals who were linked at such a critical time.
According to Engemann, there are plenty of inconveniences, but fortunately, plenty of sympathy to balance it out.
“Most people understand it’s completely out of our control,” he said. “It’s really brought us all together in a lot of different ways.”