Dealing with a crisis

The NCAA featured a detailed account of what the SEC did when the tornado struck Atlanta and damaged the Georgia dome Friday evening during the Alabama-MSU game.

Here are some important quotes directly from SEC Associate Commissioner Greg Sankey:

“The first need was to secure people’s safety. With the weather being what it was, and with that many people affected, they couldn’t just go outside. As people have correctly observed after the fact, the Alabama player who hit the shot to put that game into overtime probably saved a lot of headaches for people. Had the game ended in regulation, there would have been 5,000 or 10,000 people leave the facility directly into the storm. The amount of debris flying through the air at that time clearly would have led to injuries.

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“People who could began retreating to the concourses. Obviously, the floor was cleared. Most people in the dome, though, stood where they were with puzzled looks on their faces, but the storm came and went so quickly that everyone began trying to piece together what actually had happened. So the announcement was made that there had been severe weather and we immediately began to assess what had happened to the facility.

People on talk radio have been asking about the inspection process. Sankey said the inspection to the facility took about an hour to complete.

“That process took the better part of an hour to assess clearly, and not until then were we able to think about bringing the teams back on the floor – and even then we continued to have people monitor the weather, since more storms were on the way. But there were no answers in the short term about completing the Alabama-Mississippi State game until we learned about the safety of the dome itself. Once there came to be an understanding of what had occurred, that set off a series of logistical questions or unknowns, and the first answer to those was what happened to the facility and whether it was safe and appropriate to be inside. The answer was yes – but that wasn’t possible to decide quickly.

“Then after that game, projecting forward to the rest of the tournament raised more unknowns. We made an effort to conduct a more extensive evaluation of the facility. We had to weigh more weather approaching and the state of what was happening outside the arena before determining whether the fourth quarterfinal could be played.

“We were gathering more staff, communicating with athletics directors, making sure we knew where people were located. We were having in-person discussions, calling athletics directors who were not in the building, contacting the SEC commissioner who was in Indianapolis as a member of the Division I men’s selection committee – the dome staff was talking with city officials and other safety personnel. We had to make sure we had the right people communicating on the right issues.

“We waited a while longer before people were allowed to leave the arena, simply for safety reasons. Though it wasn’t part of the plan, it turned out to be advantageous to have the possibility of a second game keep people in the arena, just for their own safety. We needed time to evaluate the ability for people to actually go outside. I didn’t get outside myself until 5:30 Saturday morning, and obviously some things had been moved around but it was still pretty shocking to see the impact of the storm.

Sankey also talks about the logistics of moving the game away from the Georgia Dome:

“Around midnight Friday we knew we weren’t going to be able to use the facility for the rest of the tournament. Then at that point, we had to base whatever decision that was next in line on previous decisions that had been made. For example, you couldn’t talk about tournament scenarios until you determined what facilities were available, and you couldn’t do that until you were sure you had the right people addressing it.

“Once we determined the dome was not usable, we considered a nearby arena, but that was damaged as well. That’s when Georgia Tech emerged as an alternative. The Georgia Tech people were outstanding. I mean think about it, it’s midnight on a Friday of spring break and I’m on the phone with Senior Associate AD Paul Griffin who was incredibly accommodating by offering contact information for people we needed and offering to do whatever he could to help us out. By about 12:20, I was talking with the manager of their coliseum who lives about 40 miles away – he rode his motorcycle in. Then I was on the phone with the game operations person shortly thereafter. I can’t say enough good things about their willingness, support and hospitality. Ironically, Georgia, which hours ago might not have an opportunity to play in the NCAA tournament, now suddenly does, but only because their in-state rival went above and beyond the call of duty.

“So we gathered our staff for a 1:15 conference call with Georgia Dome officials and Georgia Tech staff to evaluate the logistics of going to Georgia Tech. There were so many things to address even the trucks that were going to be used for television purposes at Georgia Tech’s arena couldn’t be parked there because the Georgia Tech players’ cars were parked there already – the players obviously were in Charlotte for the ACC tournament and nobody knew exactly when they would return. Georgia Tech officials arranged for those cars to be towed to a safe place so the TV trucks could get in. That illustrates the lengths they went to in order to accommodate our needs.

“By about 3:30 or 4 a.m. we decided game times and format for the rest of the tournament. At that point we could deploy half our staff to deciding what we’re going to do and the other half on how, since tip-off was eight hours away.