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Publish date: Mar 31, 2011

Reliant Park more than a stadium

Final Four facility served as a haven for Katrina refugees in 2005

By Greg Johnson

HOUSTON – It’s amazing what can be accomplished when failure isn’t an option.

That was the scenario the Reliant Park staff faced in 2005 when thousands of evacuees from New Orleans were displaced by the flooding caused by Hurricane Katrina.

A series of phone calls among political leaders led to busload after busload of people arriving in Houston’s Reliant Park, which is the site of this year’s Men’s Final Four.

Reliant Park is unique among American sports facilities in that it houses Reliant Stadium, where the Final Four games will be played.

The other facilities on the property are the Reliant Center with its 705,000 square feet of exhibit space, the Reliant Arena (250,000 square feet of exhibit space) and the Reliant Astrodome. All were used to house Katrina evacuees. The complex also has about 26,000 parking spaces. 

Reliant Park General Manager Mark Miller remembers the first call from Harris County governmental leaders saying that the facility was going to become a giant shelter.

“It was 5:30 or 6 o’clock in the morning,” said Miller, who was an assistant general manager at Reliant Park in 2005. “They said people were leaving the Superdome in New Orleans and heading our way. We had to go figure out how to make it work.”

The first bus of evacuees, who survived Katrina and the massive flooding that covered about 80 percent of New Orleans, arrived less than 24 hours later.

“The most amazing story to me is that the guy driving the first bus was a 15-year-old kid with no license,” Miller said. “They found the bus, loaded it up with people and just drove over here.”

Once the passengers departed the bus, authorities were looking for the keys to the bus so they could move it out of the way to make room for the hundreds of buses on their way.

But no one could locate the driver.

“They couldn’t find him because he didn’t want everyone to know that he drove over without a license,” Miller said. “He thought he would get in trouble.”

Before the people began arriving, Reliant Park staff members had to coordinate with dozens of entities, including the American Red Cross, which had to find about 25,000 cots.

The lists of tasks included setting up showers, restrooms and laundry facilities, finding meals to feed thousands multiple times, securing blankets and replacement clothing, and finding volunteers to help staff the operation.

All the while, busloads of people who had lost everything kept arriving.

“We had to get them all processed,” Miller said. “You had to find out who they were and get all the information to the Red Cross. We had to find them a bed and get them settled.”

Because people had to flee for their lives, they were grabbing as many personal items and as much food as they could.

“We must have hauled 30 or 40 tons of garbage out of the Astrodome the first three or four days,” Miller said. “You have to remember that they didn’t know when they would be near a store again, and they brought everything they could.”

Miller estimated that at its peak, about 27,000 people were living in Reliant Park.

“We literally got our own zip code just for these people,” said Miller, who has lived in Houston for more than 30 years. “They delivered mail out of one of the box offices on the north end of the Astrodome. It was a regular post office that delivered mail all day long.”

Miller said most of the Reliant staff didn’t see their own homes for five days. People in the Houston community volunteered to help, and many brought extra food and clothing for those in need.

Reliant Park remained its own city for about three weeks. Children were bused to the different school districts in the Houston area to resume their education.

There were still about 6,000 people living in Reliant Park when the worst case happened: Hurricane Rita, at its peak a Category 5 storm, began creeping through the Gulf of Mexico toward Houston.

People were transported to cities north of the predicted path. After Rita passed through, the Reliant Park staff embarked on a massive clean-up campaign.

“We still have 50 to 75 washing machines stored in the top of the stadium, because no one wanted them afterward,” Miller said.

Miller and his staff had a crisis plan if a hurricane ever struck the Houston area, but the plan to house tens of thousands of citizens from another city was never contemplated.

“This was different because we weren’t the ones in crisis,” Miller said. “You always thought when you did emergency planning that it was always about what would we do if it happens to us. We would be part of the rescue or recovery effort. All the power trucks would come here, and we would house the fire departments and things like that.”

Government officials also learned some valuable lessons through the ordeal. Houston probably  will not be used in this fashion again because it is such a high-risk area for hurricanes.

If a natural disaster of this proportion occurs again, evacuees likely would be sent to locations farther north and dispersed more evenly so that one area doesn’t bear the brunt of responsibility.

After finding a way to manage the Katrina evacuation, the Reliant Park staff probably thinks their Final Four preparation is a piece of cake.

One of their larger tasks was to convert Reliant Stadium into a basketball venue after hosting the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo that was held March 1 through 20. The event draws about 2.2 million fans annually.

It takes the Reliant Park staff 80 hours to clean up the 12 inches of dirt that covers the stadium floor for the event.

But Miller is always confident his staff can get the job done, because after all, failure isn’t an option.