The death of four more fans in yet another weather related festival catastrophe, this time in Belgium, just after a similar disaster in Indianapolis resulted in five deaths, and the stage collapse that narrowly missed killing the band Cheap Trick in Canada, have many fans and officials in North America and Europe beginning to question the safety plans, policies, and procedures at these sometimes massive events. Austin had one close call this year after a near disaster at Auditorium Shores during SXSW that already raised safety concerns locally and music fans in Austin will see another major festival in just a few weeks, with C3 Presents massive ACL Festival. Ticket holders may be wondering what steps and plans C3, the ACL Festival, and the City of Austin have for such an emergency.
And we are too.
Concerts and festivals can and have turned deadly in an instant, and with huge crowds the potential for mass injuries and fatalities has been proven all too real, again. Since so many of my friends and relatives, including my nephews, have attended or are attending this years ACL Festival, I am especially concerned.
We sent a request to C3 and The ACL Music Festival's Media Agency, Fresh Aire Media, twice, to ask for an interview or information regarding what plans C3 has for a weather related emergency, but they sent us a polite note declining to participate. Not even a canned form letter or prepared statement. Unfortunately that will leave us, and you as ACL Festival concert goers, only with the option of exploring the information available from City of Austin sources, historical information about how C3, the ACL Festival and the City of Austin handled weather and other emergencies at past events, and what the ACL Festival has made available through other sources.
The ACL Festival website itself has only this statement regarding safety:
Security & Safety
We are making every effort to create a safe and secure environment on the Festival grounds. On-site security will be provided by the Austin Police Department, the Parks & Recreation Department police and a private security company.
Emergency medical staff will be available on site. If you need any assistance, go to the medical tent, or look for a police officer or Festival staff member.
There was nothing we could find on the ACL Festival web site regarding weather related emergencies, potential evacuation, or evacuation routes, and the sole map we could locate of the festival grounds shows a tiny little medical tent, much bigger on the map than in real life. But that same map doesn't even include exit points for the event, much less emergency exits or evacuation routes. For an event with 100,00 people.
Weather and the ACL Festival have had a long troubled history, with everything from dust storms to major thunderstorms and accompanying micro-bursts of wind similar to the devastating storm in Indianapolis. Historically ACL Festivals biggest problems however have been with hurricanes, purely from a planning perspective. This years event is in early September, a risk as tropical storms are still normally active in the gulf, but ACL Fest has experimented with later dates. Based on the current weather patterns it is unlikely but still possible a hurricane or tropical storm may brew up and impact the event.
More likely to impact this years events, and in fact more common historically, are the sometimes violent afternoon thunderstorms that brew up in the heat and humidity of Central Texas. Forming rapidly, and unleashing anything from a light refreshing rain to a violent torrent with accompanying high winds and hail, these storms can and have turned Zilker Park, the ACL Festival site, into a vast mudpool churned by the feet of 100,000 people in seconds, making movement difficult if not impossible. Having been witness to this at previous ACL Festivals I can tell you that it is almost expected, and also can tell you that while the festival attempted to keep the crowd apprised of the weather conditions, when the storms hit there was little they could do other than suffer the same fate as the crowd. At no time in my experience was the crowd ever informed about possible evacuations, evacuation routes or emergency procedures of any nature. In fact few of the vendors even had rain ponchos, and those that did sold out in minutes. With the huge crowds expected, the congested nature of access into and out of the park for first responders in large numbers, a major weather incident similar to Indianapolis could cause far more casualties and prove to be far more catastrophic.
Are the City of Austin and ACL Festival ready for a catastrophic emergency? Can what happened in Indianapolis happen here? We hope we can find some answers in this series of articles.