Dealing with disaster
Dealing with disasterA host of lessons can be gleaned from the parking garage collapse at Tropicana
Atlantic City, perhaps most importantly the value of a flexible crisis management plan
It was 10:40 a.m. on the eve of Halloween, a typical Thursday morning in the fall in Atlantic City, and the gaming floor at Tropicana Casino and Resort was simmering to life. The overnight hotel guests were leisurely making their way downstairs as the motorists and bus passengers began arriving for a day of gambling, lunch and maybe a Boardwalk stroll in the brisk, sunny air.
"What the hell is that?" alarmed gambler Doris Cohen asked herself when the building shook.
Chief Executive Officer Dennis Gomes raced into President Pamela Popielarski's office. "Someone said, 'That's a truck.' I said, 'That's not a truck. Something happened,'" Gomes recalled.
Snow, riots, floods, electrical outages, terrorism, hurricanes, armed robberies-casinos are ready for 'em all. Construction-site garage collapses, however, are not covered in the manual.
Not by name, anyway. But a sound emergency operating plan should cover both the foreseeable and the unforeseeable, such as when six concrete decks of a parking garage collapse and kill four construction workers, injure 20 others and threaten to derail the continuing operations of your casino hotel.
"[Any] crisis plan you make, when put in place, should deal with any situation," said Barry Scanlon, senior vice president of James Lee Witt Associates, a Washington, D.C.-based crisis management firm founded by the man who was director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency under President Clinton.
"That's the whole point of looking at things from an all-hazard approach. You throw curveballs at people in your planning. What would have been interesting is, what if there was a hurricane two days out when the garage collapsed? It's not unreasonable to think that might have happened," Scanlon said.
The Tropicana garage collapse may not have been a curveball, but it certainly was a changeup: This was strictly a construction accident that had no direct impact on the operating casino hotel across the street. The indirect effect, however, was swift and far-reaching. The 604-room West Tower, representing 40 percent of Tropicana's hotel inventory, was
evacuated, and the 2,150-space garage, representing 100 percent of Tropicana's self-parking capacity; was sealed off-both out of fear that a 100-foot concrete wall left free standing could come crashing down. Iowa Avenue, site of the newly remodeled gateway into Tropicana, was sealed off with yellow police tape and remained so as of January-same as with Tropicana's Pacific Avenue frontage, the artery for all of the casino's vehicle traffic.
Dealing with the initial impactsTropicana bosses, then, had to balance the needs of a life-or-death calamity on one hand and the needs of a $1-million-a-day operation on the other.
"Until the victims were removed from the rubble, they were our first concern. After that, the priority was the victims and their families. Then, the emergency management personnel's needs became priority. Next, our concerns turned to the guests who were affected. Finally, operational matters became the major issue," Gomes said.
Amid the organized chaos that many likened to a miniature version of the World Trade Center disaster, Tropicana F&B employees could be seen wheeling carts of food down the street to rescue workers. As a major casino hotel, Tropicana was able to quickly supply whatever emergency-management personnel and Red Cross officials requested: food, water, blankets, tables, chairs.
"After that, we focused on dealing with hundreds guests who had been evacuated from the West Tower. Next, our guests who were affected by the evacuation of the parking garages were dealt with followed by our bus customers who were either arriving or departing," Popielarski said. "Dozens of issues had to be dealt with immediately, such as getting medication to guests who left theirs in their room in the West Tower. Guests were unable to retrieve their vehicles due to the evacuation so we made rental-car arrangements for hundreds of individuals. Some refused to leave their vehicles, so hotel accommodations needed to be arranged. Taking care of guests' needs quickly became a 24-hour operation."
Tropicana paid travel expenses for guests who had to leave without their car and then retrieve it days later. Tropicana also put up residents of the Brighton Towers, forced to evacuate their condominiums adjacent to the collapsed garage, in the Sheraton for a night.
Long-term disruptionsTropicana's hotel tower and garage would open a week later; traffic was another matter. Still an accident scene under investigation by the Occupational Safety & Health Administration, everyday vehicles were diverted around the collapsed garage section, which meant continuing disruption to Tropicana's primary entryways.
"Once, with the agencies, we were able to determine what areas could be opened, we then worked with the people at Tropicana to get a traffic flow to get both their customers' vehicles and their buses up and running," said Capt. John Mooney, a 29-year veteran of the Atlantic City Police Department.
Mooney praised Tropicana for its preparation for such an event. Hotel officials delivered drawings and proposed directional signage and stayed in contact with police and city officials in the crucial first week. "They were prepared to operate under the conditions that were imposed," Mooney said.
A major assist came from the Atlantic City Hilton, which offered Tropicana its bus terminal, employee shuttle and an entire surface parking lot. Trop officials also praised Borgata, Harrah's, Resorts and others for their help during the emergency. "It was an amazing show of solidarity at a time of great need," Popielarski said.
Tropicana officials would not discuss the business impact resulting from the accident. Its year-over-year gaming revenue for November, the first full month after the accident, declined 19 percent compared to a 2 percent decline for the other casinos. "Considering the tragic events connected with the collapse, the decrease could have been much greater. Nevertheless, it appears that the other properties did benefit from the shifting of customers from the Tropicana," Goldman Sachs analyst John Kempf said.
Lessons learnedLooking back, Tropicana officials gave themselves high marks for their response.
"Honestly, I don't think we would have done anything differently regarding the operation. The Emergency Management Plan was set up efficiently and effectively. Our management team put it into action immediately and it worked," Popielarski said. "The plan was extremely useful because it deals with all types of emergencies, including major accidents. And because we routinely review the plan, we were prepared."
Public communication, however, was lacking during the emergency. A throng of reporters gathered at the site and news helicopters beamed live, continuous coverage to national news outlets, but Tropicana parent Aztar Corp. put the lid on public comment. Aztar Chairman and CEO Paul Rubeli, who was meeting investors in New York City that morning, jetted back to his Phoenix office instead of making the short jaunt to Atlantic City. "Management decision," Aztar spokesman Joe Cole said, declining to elaborate.
It wasn't until Friday afternoon, some 28 hours after the accident, that Aztar publicly commented. Industry insiders winced at the lag, saying a heartfelt but legally safe statement should have gone out late Thursday afternoon.
"What we find incredibly important is that you need to share information with the public, to be as transparent as possible about what's going on," Scanlon said.
Picking up the piecesAztar has also yet to comment on the impact the garage collapse will have on expansion plans at the property. The garage is a physically integral part of Tropicana's $245 million, market-changing expansion, which was scheduled to open in March. Tropicana as of December did not have a revised timetable for opening. Construction of the hotel and retail components resumed 33 days after the accident, indicating that the 502-room hotel tower or the 225,000-square-foot themed dining, retail and entertainment complex to be known as The Quarter could open before the garage is rebuilt.
Come March, Tropicana executives will no doubt lament that they should be celebrating a pivotal achievement for both the property and Aztar. But at the same time, Popielarski said, they should find comfort knowing that they did all the could in response to an unforeseen disaster. She, Scanlon and Capt. Mooney all noted it is vital that properties not just develop a crisis-management plan-everybody has one, after all-but that they continually practice it, challenge it, update it, preach it and ensure its integration with local police, fire, traffic and other emergency-response public agencies. Lives and bottom lines will depend on it one day, they said.
"I hope this is an opportunity for others who maybe are not sitting up straight and not figuring out, 'What am I going to do to be better prepared,'" Scanlon said. "Maybe the CEOs of other casinos will say, 'What would I do? Am I prepared?'" CJ
What went wrong?No one yet knows why the parking garage at the Tropicana Atlantic City collapsed. Lawsuits and public records signal three areas of concern:
• Was the concrete weak? Was it allowed enough time to cure?
• Were there enough support poles to support the curing concrete decks? Were they left in place long enough?
• Were the decks properly fastened to the end wall?
Tropicana and its contractors aren't commenting on possible causes. OSHA has six months from the time of the accident, or until April 30, to issue its findings. This one is expected to take the full six months, an OSHA spokeswoman said.