City assigned extra staff to festival for safety

Published 10:37 pm Wednesday, October 23, 2013

The city of Suffolk assigned extra staff to the Peanut Festival all four days to ensure everything stayed safe in the midst of dreary weather at the outdoor event, Deputy City Manager Patrick Roberts said this week.

Festival officials themselves also took action after a deluge of rain on the first day of the event. They ordered extra hay and put volunteers on overdrive spreading it in the wettest and muddiest parts of the site, Festival Executive Director Lisa Key said.

Roberts said he had the building codes officials and fire marshal’s office create two-person teams who stayed on site the entire weekend, looking for potential dangers such as electrical hazards, heating or cooking equipment moved under tents, water on top of tents and unsafe conditions due to wind.

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“From a safety standpoint, everything went exceptionally well,” Roberts said. “The weather was damp, but it didn’t become treacherous after Thursday.”

The annual event suffered from a thunderstorm on Thursday afternoon that knocked out power to the site, which required the festival to shut down for the rest of the day. Friday and Saturday saw intermittent rain, and Sunday had another heavy rain.

“I think it’s safe to say there were some concerns about the situation that was created when the Peanut Fest closed and the Shrimp Feast stayed open,” city Chief of Staff Debbie George said about Thursday evening. “There were pedestrians mixing with vehicles. It ultimately caused backup, and it caused some real safety concerns.”

Police ultimately closed the entry gate on Thursday evening, at least an hour after parking attendants had left for the night after the festival closed.

On Friday morning, city staff met to talk about concerns regarding safety at the site, George added, and that’s when the safety teams were created.

Festival Director Lisa Key said the weather made for a difficult year after initial forecasts showed nice weather.

“All four days it was showing sun,” she said of the weekend’s forecast about a week earlier. “Every day, it went down from there, and every day, we held onto hope. We were hoping it wouldn’t be as bad as they were predicting.”

After the storm forced Thursday’s closure — “I’ve never experienced that much lightning in such a short amount of time,” Key said — festival staff considered closing on Sunday, as well, when initial forecasts looked similar to Thursday. They made the decision to keep the festival open on Sunday morning.

“When Sunday came, the percentage (of rain forecast) was a lot less, and we were very happy we stayed open for Sunday,” she said.

The festival took a financial hit, with fewer visitors paying the $10 per vehicle parking fee, Key said. She did not yet have all the revenue estimates but said there is enough to pay the bills for the next year.

Vendors, who pay amounts ranging from $125 to more than $600, depending on the type of tent they get, may have also seen lower revenue, but Key said some vendors have already requested applications for next year.

She also responded to people suggesting the festival should have just moved to another weekend.

“You have contracts with people to do certain things for you during the festival, and they have already committed to somebody else for the next weekend,” she said. “Our volunteers, they take time off from their jobs to be here. They have to get back to work.”

Key praised the volunteers, who worked extra hard this year, she said.

“I cannot praise them any more,” she said. “Four days they were out there in the wind and the rain. I’m proud to have them as our volunteers.”

“We’re at the mercy of Mother Nature, and she dealt us a difficult hand this year,” she continued. “We hope everybody will come back next year and we’ll have a beautiful, sunny festival.”