ELKHART — If forbidding weather is on the horizon during one of Elkhart’s downtown festivals, officials say they have a solid plan with evacuation locations that are closer than many might realize.
For events at or around the Civic Plaza -- home to ArtWalk and Elkhart Jazz Festival, among others -- organizers can turn to two large unofficial evacuation areas just a few feet away: the underground parking garage below the plaza and the basement at the Lerner Theatre.
Bill Faus, the city’s director of emergency management, said the city doesn’t have any official designated evacuation shelters, but those two locations work very well for large groups when emergencies arise.
That source of safety, to a certain degree, might be a well-kept secret.
Faus said he doubts many festival-goers realize a safe location is literally just a few steps away.
Those two locations are among a list officials use and review each year and before certain events for contingency.
Last year, those plans were put into place during the Elkhart Jazz Festival when dark clouds gathered and the weather forecast looked worrisome enough to halt the music.
On that day, officials encouraged spectators to head to the Lerner, Faus said.
While the threat of the storm soon passed, Faus said he was pleased with how plans to evacuate music fans worked out.
“It went exactly as it should have,” Faus said. “Everyone did what was expected.”
Fire chief Michial Compton recalls another time when a stage production of “Oklahoma” was scheduled to be performed at Central Park, just east of the plaza, and severe weather became a threat. At the same time, an event was happening at Wellfield Botanic Gardens just north of the downtown.
Compton said they decided to halt both events.
Officials say experience shows the downtown is well-suited in the event of an emergency.
The parking garage and Lerner basement are large enough to accommodate several thousand people if needed, officials said.
In addition to two large evacuation areas, officials have a list of nearby stores that have well-fortified basements that can accommodate people.
The spaces are inspected regularly to make sure circumstances have not changed, Compton said.
“We have a great relationship that all of our public safety agencies have developed with the community -- especially our businesses in the downtown area,” Compton said.
Decisions about whether to stop an event and urge people to take cover happen after representatives of emergency management, fire and police consult. They also rely on information from city dispatchers, Faus said.
Attitudes about storm preparedness for large outdoor events changed following the Indiana State Fair disaster in 2011 that left seven dead after a fast-moving storm with high winds collapsed a temporary stage cover.
According to Faus, communities and festival organizers have changed their outlook on tracking weather reports, how emergency responders react to severe weather alerts and a general willingness to cancel events.
“I think it was a major influence,” he said.