MORGAN CITY — A keen eye on the weather, an attentive ear to local emergency officials, and squeegees and mulch in hand and on the ground.
That’s how Louisiana Shrimp and Petroleum Festival officials will remember the 76th annual festival.
While Tropical Storm Lee may have saturated the ground with downpours, muddied once firmer grounds in Lawrence Park, and kept or drove away spectators and vendors throughout the weekend, one thing it didn’t do for the 13 festival board members was dampen their resolve after forecasted conditions were deemed safe for the festival.
“First off, you can’t mess with Mother Nature,” Festival Executive Director Lee Delaune said.
Instead, he and the festival board had to work with her, putting down mulch in areas when inclement weather came and using large squeegees (a larger version of the instruments used to dry windshields) to keep the area as dry as possible.
That was the festival board’s weekend — at least Saturday through noon Sunday — before the weather began to clear up and make way for a much more favorable Sunday afternoon and evening and all day Monday for festivalgoers.
Despite the challenges of hosting the large event, Delaune said he received no notification from city, parish or state officials saying that the festival was a hazard to attendees’ safety. So the show went on.
Although the state did issue an emergency disaster declaration the day the festival began when the weather system still was a tropical depression, St. Mary Parish Office of Emergency Preparedness Director Duval Arthur Jr. said these emergencies are declared for multiple reasons.
They are procedural moves to qualify areas for federal funding (if available) if disasters occur, they authorize permission to complete emergency procedures to stop flooding and loss of life, as well as to protect property owners when they file claims with their insurance companies.
Locally, Arthur said the emergency declaration was more of a precautionary move than a sign that the storm was an eminent threat.
“We really had no assurances that it was going to come our way,” Arthur said.
Looking back, he said that the decision to proceed with the festival was probably the right one.
“I think they had every right in the world to keep the thing going,” Arthur said. “I certainly don’t want to criticize anyone because it turned out to be a great weekend.”
While some have said the festival shouldn’t have been held in such inclement weather, Delaune noted that it’s just not as simple as rescheduling for another date.
He said the massive amount of work that is done in a normal year is doubled because everything that was done for the initial festival, has to be updated for the new festival.
There are other challenges, too — chiefly, finding a date to reschedule the festival’s carnival, which Delaune said is a big part of the event.
“Getting them to come back is basically when they have a date,” he said.
Then, there’s the rescheduling of food and arts and crafts vendors as well as the musical entertainment, which all make the festival circuit.
Also, because the festival is the last four day weekend available each year, events that could be spread out over Thursday to Monday would have to be held from Thursday through Sunday.
Delaune said the only way the festival is cancelled is due to a hurricane.
It was cancelled in 1992 because of Hurricane Andrew (though a smaller event was held in Jefferson Parish in place of the local celebration) and was rescheduled in 2005 because of Hurricane Katrina and in 2008 because of Hurricanes Gustav and Ike.
While rescheduling the festival is a painstaking decision, if it must be done, Delaune is prepared to do it.
“I have no problems getting on my golf cart and heading round telling people you have to pack up,” he said. “We did it before.”
According to National Weather Service data, maximum sustained winds reached about 31 mph on Sept. 3 at the Harry P. Williams Memorial Airport near Patterson at 7:15 p.m., while a wind gust up to 40 mph at that location was recorded a few hours earlier.
While these winds may have contributed to some tents being blown over and some items damaged, festival Vendor Chairman Lee Darce lauded the efforts of board members as well as city police who helped pick up blown down tents and merchandise.
She said those that suffered damaged merchandise were those who didn’t secure their items.
“It is your responsibility as a vendor to maintain a proper booth, to have proper security for your booth and your product,” Darce said. “It is a personal responsibility. It is not the responsibility of the festival.”
Darce said that approximately 70 percent of the nearly 180 arts and crafts and food vendors scheduled to show did show at some point during the weekend.
In accordance with the contract festival vendors sign, festival officials said that because an evacuation was not declared due to an impending hurricane, no fees were returned.
If an evacuation had been declared, the fees would have been forwarded to a rescheduled festival, and if vendors could not attend the rescheduled festival, or if the festival was cancelled, 75 percent of the fees either would have been rolled over for participation in the following year’s festival or would have been refunded. The remaining 25 percent would have been retained by the festival to cover the administrative, security and advertising costs associated with the vending section.
Merchants that The Daily Review interviewed during and after the festival agreed that the festival did what they could to alleviate the bad weather.
“The people of Morgan City have been just awesome,” vendor Betty Castell said on Labor Day, the final day of the festival. “That means a lot that the people of the town care that we came.”
Further down, David Prince of Jackson, Miss., who was selling address signs, said his weekend at the festival was better than anticipated with the weather threat.
“I think a lot of vendors bailed out and they really shouldn’t have,” Prince said.
“I don’t leave until the rain pushes me out,” he added.
One of those vendors who did leave, Annette Moore of West Monroe, said that weather reports coupled with squalls of rain passing through the area prompted her to leave.
Before making the decision, she fortified her tents by tying them to a van.
“Had our tents blown over or collapsed on the set, we would have had major damage,” she said.
While Castell and Prince said sales were down, Moore said her sales were OK during the Friday and Saturday she was there.
“It’s just a shame the weather just did not want to let us stay, I guess,” she said.
Delaune said he also has heard from several vendors that they did really well.
“A lot of them said they broke even,” he said.
Although Castell and Prince said others around them had problems with the weather, they said they each fared OK.
“I’ve been doing this long enough to know that you got to have your tent anchored down no matter what,” Prince said.
When asked if they thought the festival should have been rescheduled, Castell and Moore both said that would have been a tough decision to make.
“This time of year, the artists that were there, I can almost guarantee you they have shows back to back all the way to Christmas,” Moore said. “It would be really hard to schedule and get those vendors back in.”
Not everyone was happy with the festival’s decision to proceed, though. Along with comments in favor of the festival, multiple ones were left on the festival’s page on the social media site Facebook.
“I am still just not believing that they didn’t reschedule,” Barbara Broussard of Scott wrote. “A later date with better weather would have helped to recoup losses from this mess and having to postpone. Yes, they may have had some die-hards in attendance, but the profits just will not be there. Very bad business and safety decision!”
Steele Tortorich of Donaldsonville posted on the morning of Sept. 4 that “every other booth was knocked down. I was there at 7:30 this morning, a total disaster. … I’d be embarrassed if I was in charge!”
Delaune said he was aware of the comments but said he does not put stock in what is posted on Facebook.
“You overlook those, that’s in anything,” he said. “That’s even if they came here in the office and said that. It’s just a way of dealing with the people.”
Lindsay Fruge of Patterson, who would have been a first time vendor at the festival, said she couldn’t set up her booth because the inclement weather would have damaged the children’s clothing and hair accessories she makes.
“I felt like they had the money more in mind than the safety,” she said of festival officials. “There is no way I would have brought my kids out there.”
Because she was not able to sell, she said that her items are sitting in an extra bedroom at her house, and she has been trying to sell them via Facebook.
She proposed that a civic center be set up one weekend so the vendors are allowed to make what they would have earned. While she said she and others would have paid a portion, she said it would be nice if the festival could pay a portion, too.
When told of the idea, Darce asked, “And who’s going to give us the money for that?”
She said there is no other festival with a covered area, like Morgan City has with the E.J. “Lionel” Grizzaffi U.S. 90 Bridge, unless admission is charged.
Although the festival is held during hurricane season and sometimes is threatened by bad weather, festival officials said they have no plans to change, chiefly because it is the last four day weekend available during the year.
“There is no other four day weekend that would allow us to have a Friday and a Monday, also,” Darce said.
Despite the bad weather, festival officials said earlier this week that they have had people put booth deposits down for next year.
“Some of the new ones ... they’re coming back,” Delaune said. “They want a second shot of being here at the festival.”