Pollstar just got off the phone with Rafi Kohan, author of the new book The Arena, who added his perspective on today’s announcement that Houston’s NRG Center is a temporary shelter for the city’s evacuees.

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Rafi Kohan

Kohan, who traveled the U.S. reporting on the machinations of the country’s arenas and stadiums, dedicates a chapter of his book to the Louisiana Superdome and the sad role it played in the story of Hurricane Katrina more than a decade ago.

Kohan interviewed Doug Thornton, GM at the time of the Dome. Thornton, as a regional director for SMG, is involved with today’s efforts at the SMG-managed NRG Center.  Pollstar will publish the full interview with Kohan in the near future but here are his thoughts on today’s announcement.

Do you have any perspective on Hurricane Harvey from a facility angle?

Of course I’ve been thinking about it, seeing the news coverage. That’s given me flashbacks to all the people I’ve spoken to in terms of the Superdome and their experiences, and the ground-level heroism that has to take place with these events.


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Photo: AP Photo

NRG Center - Dominican Sisters of Mary Immaculate Province join a line of people waiting to volunteer at NRG Center, which opened its doors to evacuees in the wake of Tropical Storm Harvey Aug. 30

I remember talking to Ed Emmett, who is a judge for Harris County down in Houston. One of his areas of oversight is hurricanes and evacuations. I know they made a very conscientious decision not to evacuate, even though there is tragedy along the way, and loss of life, but it could potentially could have been much worse if they evacuated.

They can’t handle that level of evacuation, creating millions of evacuees scattered across the region. But he was interesting to talk to because he does not feel that stadiums, in particular, were made to be good shelters, especially after Katrina when people were bused over to Houston and dropped off at the Astrodome. He thought they were just being moved from one hurricane zone to another, creating another disaster in waiting.

Twelve years later, we can see Houston was indeed vulnerable.

That doesn’t speak to the logistics of the stadiums themselves but, macroscopically, how politicians might think about these events, when to move people, and when it would make sense.  I think there’s a reason why they call them shelters of last resort. You don’t want to spend days or weeks in a setting that feels like a refugee camp. 

At the Superdome, they suffered for a variety of reasons, from not being prepared to handle that level of citizenry to the venue and city itself not being girded for that kind of event.  Doug Thornton makes clear in his own harrowing recounting of that time, things came pretty close to disaster.  I can only hope that it is not replaying in Houston.

It sounds like it may not be a replay.  They opened up the NRG Center last night and are already turning away volunteers.

Wow, that’s amazing.

It appears to be an entirely different story, at least from the sources we’ve talked to.  They have rows of bottled water lined up. The queue of people out front, shown in an AP photo, is a queue of volunteers, not evacuees.

That’s probably the big difference with Katrina, which couldn’t benefit from ground-level heroism because people actually evacuated.  People here were not told to, which created opportunities. We’ve seen all these great photos like guys jet-skiing grandmas out of the front door of their houses.  There appears to be so many people trying to help other people. The Superdome didn’t have the benefit of a volunteer army.  There it was the National Guard, it was more militarized.

Anything else?

I don’t have any logistical insights, but it sounds like the most amazing thing, the fact that you have as many or more people lining up as volunteers as you have lining up to take shelter.  One, it speaks well for Houston and, two, it gives them the opportunity to have a less harrowing stay for however long they have to be in there.

“The Arena” is available at www.rafikohan.com