Dave Martin is Fair Grounds’ Director of Facilities, Security and Safety. He was responsible for securing the property before, during and after Hurricane Katrina.
Nicole Ario is Fair Grounds’ Assistant Security Supervisor. Of seven Fair Grounds employees who rode out the storm in the Grandstand, only Nicole remains on staff five years later.
Following is a story of Fair Grounds and Hurricane Katrina, in their own words, edited from an Aug. 24 interview.
Friday, August 26, 2005
Dave Martin: “It formed in the Atlantic off the coast of Florida. I can remember coming into work Friday, about eight o’clock in the morning, and all indications were that the storm was going to cross over Florida and make kind of a u-turn across Central Florida and head back out into the Atlantic. Well, as the day progressed and I would check on it, the path kept moving along the Florida peninsula to the panhandle. About maybe five o’clock that afternoon projected landfall was between Pascagoula and the Mississippi-Alabama state line. The projected path had moved over 800-some miles just in an eight-hour period.
“The president of Fair Grounds at that time was Randy Soth and I remember going into his office and saying, ‘We’re going to get hit. This thing is coming and we’re going to have problems.’ Actually, I used a few choice words, but what I said in essence was, ‘We’re in trouble.’”
Sunday, August 28, 2005
Dave: “I remember leaving my house to evacuate on Sunday morning. I had some renovations going on so I had about a six-foot by eight-foot hole in my back wall where a window was going to go in. There was plywood over it and I could see sunlight between the cracks. So I’m leaving, my wife’s in the car, I’m closing the door and locking it, and I’m thinking to myself, ‘This is probably the last time I’m going to see my house.’ I had no idea if it was going to be there when I got back.
“The fire department had approached us a few years before about utilizing Fair Grounds as a staging ground for search and rescue in the event there was ever a mandatory evacuation, since this is one of the highest points in the Gentilly area. So we had already agreed to let them stage here. We also had a contingency of security personnel that were going to stay on property, just to make sure we wouldn’t have any problems with looters or whatever the case may be. So that was the game plan. Really the thought process was that after the storm passed they were all going to go home. I’m sure that’s what everyone thought at that point in time.
“Nicole is one of the ones that stayed. I also had Jim Schanbien, our deputy director of security at the time; Lamont Thompson; Giovanni Jenkins; Randy James; Frank Ben, the manager of the housekeeping department; Mr. Herbert; and Ron Adamis, who lived across the street at the time and volunteered to stay on.
“The security staff was definite and then we had the couple of volunteers from housekeeping just in case we started to get water in the building. So those were the people that stayed here with the fire department.”
Nicole Ario: “I didn’t hesitate. I volunteered to stay. We came in Sunday morning as a regular shift, because at that point we had just had a little rain. And then Chief Schanbien sent the ones that weren’t volunteering home. We were all talking over what we had seen on the news, making jokes and things. Then a few hours later Colonel James and his guys came and set up all of their cars and engines. We just waited out the day, laughing, joking, talking. I would check on my kids; they called all day. I would check in with Chief [Dave Martin]; he was calling. We’d walk through the building, make sure everything was alright. We opened the barn doors so they wouldn’t go anywhere, but one did anyway!”
Monday, August 29, 2005
Nicole: “The generator kept the TV on in the executive office. So Chief Schanbien was up there monitoring it and letting us know what was going on. Downstairs the main phone line worked so people could call in and we could check up on our family members. And we had a radio.”
Dave: “The storm hit on Monday. I was on the phone with Jim from my hotel in Lafayette and he said they were using the generator sparingly. If people would see lights they’d think we had power and would try to get in.”
Nicole: “That barn door [along the horse path from the paddock to the main track] flew off and took that whole wooden fence down. I was on the east side of the building, where the program booth is, by the Security office. I just heard something go, ‘boom!’
“They wanted me to stay by the Security office since I was the only female. We slept in the Jockeys’ Room and when I woke up I saw all the foam and stuff all over the paddock.”
Tuesday, August 30, 2005
Nicole: “When we woke up and saw all that debris around, that’s when we realized we wouldn’t be going home that day. So we sat around and talked. I remember Chief Schanbien quizzing us about what the safest place in the building was. We all said the fourth floor but we learned it was the stairwell between the main building and the executive offices. Mostly we were all trying to keep our minds focused on something else and not break down. We were comforting one another, talking to one another. We couldn’t check on our families by then because everyone else’s phones were down.
Dave: "Our rail was completely gone and we ended up finding part of that later about five blocks away; it had jut blown through the neighborhood."
Nicole: “Once the rain stopped the water was right up to the finish line but didn’t make it past there. We had one neighbor who thought we were pumping water off the track onto Belfort Street so they were knocking holes in the cinder blocks trying to put the water back. Chief Schanbien had to go back there and tell them it wasn’t us, that there was water everywhere.”
Dave: “Jim called me and said, ‘The water’s rising. What’s going on?’ I told him there were several breaks in the levee: the Seventeenth Street Canal, the London Canal and the Intracoastal Waterway by the Ninth Ward. He said the water was coming across the infield and was almost to the outer rail of the dirt track. I said, ‘Okay, if it starts getting in the building move up to the second floor. We’re working on a way to get you all out of there.’”
Nicole: “I would hear gunshots at night when we weren’t using the generator. I had some blankets by the program booth that I was using as a bed. I couldn’t sleep because it was so warm at night. I would sit up and I could hear the gunshots. One minute it was coming from that way, one minute it was coming the other way. Mostly it was on the Broad Street side. I still don’t know if they were trying to get someone’s attention or what.”
Wednesday, August 31, 2005
Dave: “The fire department had been doing search and rescue. One of the guys had a boat. They were going out into the neighborhoods in the daylight, but by Wednesday they said it had gotten too dangerous. They were hearing gunfire too frequently.
“The fire department didn’t have any communication. They didn’t know who was in charge and it was that kind of confusion all over the city. It was like, ‘Is anybody running this?’ So that was when they decided to try to get out.
“Where the current Slots facility is now was the valet parking lot. They spray painted in the middle of the parking lot, ‘HELP – NEW ORLEANS FIRE DEPARTMENT.’”
Nicole: “The parking lot was clear where we had the ‘HELP’ sign but we had water on the street, water all around Gentilly, water all through the backside.”
Thursday, September 1, 2005
Dave: “It ended up being a Black Hawk helicopter that came down and picked everybody up and brought them to Causeway and I-10, where the staging area was.”
Nicole: “The first helicopter came on Thursday, so we were here Sunday to Thursday.
“When the helicopter came they put me on there with Colonel James and Mr. Frank and Mr. Ron. I had never been on a helicopter. We went up and I could see the [Interstate] 610, Tad Gormley Stadium, Pan-American Stadium, and nothing else but water. At the bridge you saw the hump coming out of the water but that’s all.
“We were the first set of people from Fair Grounds to get out there [to the staging area on the 610 overpass] and then we saw helicopters coming from all directions bringing people.
“They gave us some meals but I couldn’t even eat; I just wanted to get back to my family.”
Dave: “By then Churchill had overnighted plane tickets for everybody to get wherever their families were located. We had two company cars that were parked at the airport. I instructed Jim where to go to find our key box and told him he could just bust in and take those duplicate keys and if he could get to the airport they could take the cars.”
Nicole: “The Jefferson Parish police – some of Chief’s friends – picked us up in a truck and helped us get to the airport. We walked right into the garage and got those cars. I only went as far as Gonzales because that’s where my people were. I went to the outlet mall and that’s where my family met me. Lamont and Giovanni and Colonel James, they all went on to Lafayette so they could fly out.”
Dave: “It was Jim Schanbien and Colonel James driving the two cars. I told them to just make their way to Lafayette. I had booked a hotel room just for a couple days because I figured that after the storm passed we’d come right back home. Well, I went down to the desk because I had to check out that day, but I explained the situation and the woman there said she’d extend my stay a few more days, which allowed everyone, seven people, to get a hot shower. They hadn’t bathed since Sunday. And they had a dry, clean place to sleep until we could get them to the airport the next day.”
Nicole: “Lamont had a ticket to Texas. Colonel James was going to South Carolina. We had each other’s numbers and we all went off to our families.”
Dave: “I remember being on a conference call and Tom Meeker, the CEO of Churchill Downs at the time, said to the Human Resources staff, ‘I don’t care what it takes, I want you to find every employee no matter where they are and I want them to be paid through the end of the year and their medical taken care of.’ And they did find everybody.”
Nicole: “I was in Wal-Mart and I got a call from someone at Churchill – I can’t remember her name – she said, ‘Nicole, are you safe?’ I told her I was with family. She said, ‘And you have all five of your children with you there? Your family took in all of you?’ And I said yes. And she said, ‘Just be looking out for FedEx in the morning because we’re sending you the information on your insurance. Your dental, your vision, everything you need, it’s all paid for.’ And she sent me a gift card, too. FedEx came every week and it was never late.”
Dave: “I came back a couple days after with Jim. Just to get into the city was very difficult. We had to go through military checkpoints. We had to come in from River Road and through the French Quarter and down Esplanade. We had to drive up on lawns to get around the downed oak trees and around some of the high water.
“We made it back here to the Fair Grounds and we were able to assess the damage. We lost seventy-five percent of the roof. The whole west side of the building was completely gone. We lost the windows on the west side.
“Jim and I came in and we noticed that the front door was busted out. And we had just gotten all these new golf carts and they were gone. We didn’t know if anyone was in the building but we were armed so we went in. Churchill had sent us HazMat uniforms and goggles and stuff like that. We suited up, came in, did a walk-through of the entire building. It was very eerie. The Clubhouse was covered with insulation from the metal roofing.
“As we’re walking out we hear guns being racked. We heard lock-and-load and someone hollered for us to state our business. We’re standing there with masks on and guns at our sides, carrying these servers that we had recovered, and we had twelve M-16s staring us in the face.
“It was the National Guard and we were able to talk to them. They had commandeered our golf carts, our water truck, our front-end loader. They had taken all of our equipment and used it, but that wasn’t a problem with me. In fact, I was concerned about leaving the building with the state of the city at that time, so I asked this lieutenant – these guys were all from Oklahoma – if they were interested in staying here. I told them I had a commissary full of soft drinks and a kitchen full of food if they wanted it. They radioed their Captain and next thing I know there’s an RTA [Regional Transit Authority] bus pulling into our parking lot and they start loading out.
“They stayed a while and then when they shipped out we housed another group from Maine and after that another group from Oregon. By the time the National Guard was all gone I was able to get our usual NOPD detail officers and our own security personnel. It worked out and by the end the Guardsmen actually started cleaning our place up.
“Once Churchill tracked everyone down, our main operations – the president of the track, the HR department – moved to Louisville. They kept working at taking care of the employees.
“Jim kept one car and I kept the other one and we commuted every day from Lafayette, doing assessments and getting information back to Louisville, not only for this location but also the OTBs. Eventually I got Buck [Franklin] back in town, and Barry [Brazile] and Al Heine.
“What gave us a double-whammy was Rita came through and was a rainmaker. Three windows busted in the paddock because sheet metal was hanging over the side and when the wind started coming it busted them. There was mold everywhere and we had Sheetrock to move out.”
Dave: “When the water subsided we went back to check out the barn area and you had dead fish on the backside. Redfish, trout. Later I had the insurance adjuster try to tell me that there was no saltwater here. I said, ‘Well, can you explain the redfish and the trout that I found on the backside?’
“We started working on getting some of those OTBs back up and by October we were able to open four of the OTBs to the west of the city. A lot of our employees came back and they put as much effort into getting those OTBs up and running as they were putting into their own personal lives and homes.
“We set up our office in the old VSI [Video Services Incorporated] offices in Elmwood off Jefferson Highway. We converted that into our new offices until we could get people back into this location.”
Dave: “Randy Soth went up there [to Harrah’s Louisiana Downs in Bossier City, La.]; along with our executive secretary, Katherine Ricord; our racing secretary at the time, Ben Huffman; our Publicity Director at the time, Lenny Vangilder; and our stall supervisor, Mario Torres. They used the Louisiana Downs racing department and put on an abbreviated meet.”
Nicole: “Chief called me and said, ‘Spiderwoman’ – that was my name because I’d been bit by a spider – ‘Spiderwoman, you ready to come back to work?’ I said yes and he said, ‘See you Monday morning.’ I said, ‘I’ll be there. Seven o’clock.’ And we were sitting there Monday morning, December 1, 2005, at the front double gate. We were there five days per week after that.”
Dave: “In January came the announcement that they were going to have a Jazz Fest to help bring back the city. In January this place was full of mold, we still didn’t have a roof, we were battling the insurance company…”
Dave: “We didn’t get lights back on in this building until four days before they opened Jazz Fest!
“The contract company, Brice Construction, they really put the pedal to the metal to get this thing ready to go. We had to put 95,000 pounds of gypsum down in the infield to get that grass to grow. We hired the fire department and paid them to water the track for eight hours a day, shooting that cannon, just to get that grass growing despite that heavy salt concentration that we had from the Gulf of Mexico being on our infield.”
Friday, April 28, 2006
Nicole: “On Opening Day of Jazz Fest, I went to my favorite spot, the sixth-floor balcony, and when they opened the gate people just started running in and they looked like little insects pouring in.”
Thanksgiving Day, Thursday, November 23, 2006
Nicole: “I didn’t think there was going to be racing again, or at least not as soon as there was. But I still didn’t go far. My brother was in the fire department and I wasn’t leaving him. And my dad, he was stubborn and said he wouldn’t leave. So I went from Gonzales to Reserve to my dad’s house in the Garden District once they said we could move back.”
Dave: “It was really exciting to come back and open up that following year on Thanksgiving Day. It was jammed. It was unbelievable that we had come back.
“We had contemplated several scenarios. What if we only opened the first floor? What if we only used the Derby Building as our Grandstand? But finally the decision was made that we would open the whole building up. It had been a question of whether we could get the personnel to staff the entire building. It was a scramble but we were able to do it.”
Nicole: “Looking back, I’m just happy that everybody got out safe. I didn’t lose anyone from my family. When we came back I didn’t want to go anywhere else and I’ve been here ever since.”
Dave: “It seems like a lifetime ago. It just seems like a chapter in your life that … I was just numb. My wife and I were living in a camper that my stepson’s girlfriend’s friend’s dad had. I had my wife and two dogs – a golden retriever and a lab – and it was all of us living in this little camper. I’ll never forget lying in that bed and thinking, ‘I’m forty-nine years old and I’m living in a trailer.’ I don’t know if it was a survival thing or something like that, but every day you just got up and did what you had to do to move things along.”
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