Convention Centers — Built Like a Rock

RENEE DIIULIO, SENIOR EDITOR
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Convention centers tend to be large, sturdy buildings capable of withstanding the high winds of a tropical storm. But they are not impervious — for instance, floods and earthquakes can still wreak havoc.

However, many of the venues located in the paths or potential paths of the recent series of hurricanes on the east coast fared well. Jerry Daigle, Deputy General Manager of the Orange County Convention Center (OCCC), reported that his facility experienced no appreciable damage. “We lost a few trees and branches,” he says.

Because the facility is so resistant to winds, it was approached by local emergency response teams for storage aid. “Our first priority is to our customers. If the space is reserved, it will not be available for community use. However, we did have space and were able to store fire trucks, patrol cars and even sheriff helicopters,” says Daigle.

The facility also granted space to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) for use as a special-care unit for people requiring constant medical care. “FEMA has a budget for these units so they did pay rent,” says Daigle, noting the local response teams did not. “This is our community, and we want to help when we can.”

The Ernest N. Morial Convention Center in New Orleans was completely spared when Hurricane Ivan changed its path and passed the city. Officials had been most concerned about flooding in a region that lies 10 feet below sea level in some places. “Any decisions to cancel or postpone were made by the show organizers. Had the mayor announced a mandatory evacuation, the situation might have been different,” says Sabrina Written, Director of Communications at the facility.

The South Florida Fair and Expo Center did have some damage but not enough to prevent it from being used in relief efforts. According to Kris Pursell, Vice President of Expo Development at the venue, damage was limited to fencing, awnings and the roof. Most can be easily repaired.

In the meantime, the facility’s larger building is a staging ground for the Red Cross and National Guard, its smaller structure is a special care unit for Palm Beach County and its parking lot is home to Florida Power and Light, which has set up tents for feeding and housing employees.

The venue was forced to cancel all events beginning September 1 but is uncertain yet of the impact on its bottom line. “We are going to try to accommodate everyone as best we can, but the details still need to be worked out,” says Pursell.

Sources: Jerry Daigle, Deputy General Manager, Orange County Convention Center, (800) 345-9845, jerry.daigle@occc.net; Kris Pursell, Vice President of Expo Development, South Florida Fair and Expo Center, (561) 790-5227, kris@southfloridafair.com; Sabrina Written, Director of Communications, (504) 582-3027; swritten@mccno.com.