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Preparing Places of Refuge

IN THE WAKE OF the destruction swept into the Gulf Coast by Hurricane Katrina, thousands of evacuees who thought they had been moved to a safe haven at the Louisiana Superdome faced despair as they encountered quickly worsening conditions.

Lack of electricity and holes in the roof led to oppressive heat and poor sanitation. Conditions became so dire that the refugees had to be rescued again—this time from the intended evacuation shelter of the Superdome. They were bused more than 300 miles away to the Houston Astrodome.

That raises the question of how the Superdome was chosen as a waystation for evacuees and whether other large facilities designated as disaster refuges are as vulnerable.

Typically, cities look for facilities that appear to be strong, says Peter Tarlow, a tourism and travel security expert who has consulted on such matters. The Superdome was a natural choice, he says, because of its vast size, the protection it offers from the elements, and the presence of water supplies and plumbing.

But sites of refuge must be tailored to the specific disaster, Tarlow notes, with a risk analysis conducted to see how the building stands up to specific scenarios.

“Under the scenarios portrayed, the Superdome made sense,” says Tarlow. “But the scenarios were wrong.” For example, he says that officials projected that the stadium would serve as a shelter for about 12 hours, not several days. They also didn’t consider that its generators were stored in the basement and would thus be an early casualty of flooding.

City officials also relied on the builder’s certification that the stadium could withstand 200-mile-per-hour winds, adds Ken Brady, CPP, principal and vice president of operations for Crisis Management Associates in Bloomington, Illinois. This could have been a case in which authorities didn’t sufficiently determine how well the roof would hold given the risk posed by a violent storm, says Brady, who chairs the ASIS International Crisis Management Council.

Safety and security directors at other large stadiums, arenas, and convention centers all said that they expected to review their facilities’ fitness as a place of mass evacuation. For example, officials at the Carrier Dome at Syracuse University—which is considered a possible refuge site for students in the event of a major snowstorm—will likely review their plans in the near future, says Drew Buske, captain of investigations for the university’s department of public safety.

Likewise, Toronto’s Rogers Centre, domed home of baseball’s Blue Jays, will also be reevaluating its role in the city’s emergency plan. Depending on the disaster scenario, the facility could be put to various purposes, such as a refuge or a morgue, says Director of Security Jennifer Osborne. With this in mind, the Rogers Centre conducts various types of disaster-scenario and rescue training, she adds.

“The one lesson that should be taken away as history judges this catastrophe over time,” says sports facilities consultant Rick Horrow, “is that public facilities that are built for large special events must continue to contain the capability of large-scale staging, rescue, and refuge, as an additional benefit of the public investment allocated to these facilities.”