Fair Grounds Security Official Recalls Katrina

Fair Grounds' assistant security chief Jim Schanbien, along with seven co-workers, showed dedication to their city and the historic New Orleans racetrack by volunteering to remain to help firefighters during the blustery violence of Hurricane Katrina and its watery aftermath.

"It was the most wind I've ever seen," said Schanbien of Katrina's descent upon the Gulf Coast Aug. 29. "After Monday, we thought the storm had passed. But the next day the water started rising."

Shanbien said he, four members of his security detail, two members of the housekeeping staff, and the head of the food and beverage division stayed to assist the dozen or so members of New Orleans Fire Department who had designated Fair Grounds, specifically the parking lot and maintenance building, as an emergency staging area.

"I knew my family had made it out safe, and I thought it would be best if I stayed," Shanbien said Wednesday during a media teleconference arranged by Churchill Downs Inc., which owns Fair Grounds. "I knew the track, and and had access to the buildings, and we were able to help the fire department because we knew the surrounding area."

Schanbien said high winds sheered most of the grandstand roof and caused significant damage to the stuccod section of the West side of the complex. Remarkably, he said, none of the glass facing the infield was broken.

Schanbien said when the waters began to encroach, some local residents peaceably scaled or cut through some of the track's fencing seeking dry ground, but there was no lawlessness at the track itself.

Schanbien, who was evacuated by a Marine helicopter early Thursday, said water from a breech of the levee at the 17th Street Canal was waist-high on Gentilly Street outside the park. Water as high as three to four feet found its way throughout much of the track and its buildings, and the track's infield and both ovals were completely submerged.

"We met with the fire department each night and morning to discuss the damage," said Schanbien. "We stayed awake in shifts. It starting getting dangerous Monday and Tuesday when we started hearing gunshots off in the distance. When the gunfire got a little too close on Wednesday night we decided to get out. I don't think people were ever so happy to see the Marines when those choppers came."

In all, 19 individuals, including the firefighters, were evacuated form the grounds following mandatory evacuation orders and placed down at the intersection of the Causeway and Interstate 10.

"Uneventful," was how Schanbien, a former sheriff's officer, described the events. "The water never really threatened us." Schanbien also said the constant sight of Coast Guard, state police and other helicopters made it "look like a scene from M.A.S.H."

Schanbien said the group stayed in touch by land phone, and a single radio station, both powered by judicious use of their generators. Food and water were available by keeping the refrigeration units sealed as much as possible.

He said no horses were on the premises since the closing of the Fair Grounds' meet in March.

The other Fair Grounds employees who rode out the storm with Schanbien were:
-- Nicole Ario, security
-- Randy James, security
-- Javahnie Jenkins, security
-- Lamont Thompson, security
-- Frank Ben, housekeeping
-- Herbert Reaux, housekeeping
-- Ron Adams, food & beverage/catering

Also Wednesday, CDI spokesperson Julie Koenig-Loignonsaid 267 of the roughly 500 full time employees in the area had been accounted for and that they were cross-checking personnel lists with the American Red Cross to locate the missing.

CDI is involved in discussions with the Louisiana Horsemen's Benevolent Protection Association and track officials at Harrah's Louisiana Downs about the possibility of holding a partial replacement meet at the Bossier City track.