Weather Woes Making Texas's Summer Festivals a Risky Business

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This past weekend was supposed to mark the latest installment of Levitation, the Austin music festival that celebrates all types of psychedelic-influenced music, with an eclectic lineup featuring Brian Wilson, Ween and Flying Lotus. That festival didn’t take place, as a threat of severe weather forced organizers on Thursday afternoon to make the tough call to cancel the entire weekend.

This would have been the festival’s fourth year at Carson Creek Ranch, an idyllic location for a festival at the outskirts of the city, a spot filled with gorgeous streams and lush landscapes that makes for a perfect site to host an event that feels like its own world. While it’s never been as harsh as in this instance, this isn’t the first time weather has affected the festival, and fans of Houston’s FPSF are familiar with the feeling of rain causing major changes or setbacks to a fest of that size. As these instances become more common each year, they raise the question of whether the current model of where and when these festivals take place is really sustainable.

Cancellations like this create a highly unfortunate situation for everyone involved. It’s hard to overstate how much time, effort and hours go into putting together a festival of that size, from booking bands, working with vendors, hiring staff and converting a ranch into the grounds for a festival that hosts thousands. People travel from all around the world for Levitation, since it’s known for its unique lineup that features rare performances by acts that don’t tour frequently. All the work that goes into it and the costs that had already been incurred undoubtedly made the decision a supremely difficult one for the organizers. That decision was completely justified as well, since the festival’s location is not conducive to heavy rain, containing plenty of low ground prone to flooding as well as dirt roads that could easily leave the hundreds of cars in the parking lot stuck or worse. As massive an undertaking as Levitation is, it’s just a music festival, and not worth the cost of safety.

Levitation has had issues with this before. Last year’s festival came after historic rainfall, causing the festival to completely rework the layout as areas of stages were underwater and sinkholes were popping up. Last May brought horrible flooding to Austin, and these experiences set a clear precedent of what could happen to the festival if the rain ended up as severe as forecast. Houston festival fans are familiar with weather affecting festivals as well, as last summer’s FPSF was forced to relocate at the last minute to the NRG Stadium parking lot after the Memorial Day floods rendered Eleanor Tinsley Park unusable. It’s a different situation, and the point of comparing the two isn’t to say how each festival handled the weather, but rather to emphasize that two major festivals in the same region around the same time of year being affected like this begins to indicate a trend.

The problem is that when organizing a festival, you can’t plan for weather. This is a year-round process for the staff involved, and it's impossible to know when booking a lineup in August what the weather will look like in April. Another is that in both cities, there aren’t a lot of large patches of empty land that would be suitable for a festival of that size. Eleanor Tinsley Park is a rare find as a centrally located park that could hold thousands of people. There aren’t a plethora of empty parks around town that could easily work. It’s just that last Memorial Day brought a 100-year flood to the region, and already this past month we had a 500-year flood. People can complain about presumptuous meteorologists all they want, but that’s two major flooding events in the past two years that have cost many their homes or even their lives. As these festivals like Levitation and FPSF are being held in areas easily susceptible to flooding at a time of the year when it's becoming more and more frequent, it may be time to reconsider moving them.

Of course, there are no easy answers. There are alternatives, such as hosting events in different venues around town like a SXSW, but that creates capacity issues, affects ticket sales and isn’t as feasible for a city like Houston. A parking lot may not be the ideal location for FPSF, but last year’s proved that it could be done. Another solution is to look at what festivals like Houston Whatever Fest or Day For Night have done in recent years. While on different scales, both events have utilized a combination of indoor and outdoor spaces in the middle of the city. These sites had the ability to hold large crowds in urban areas where heavy rain wouldn’t be as damaging. Another thing to consider is that these festivals take place in November and December, when the weather is typically milder.

Clearly, moving Levitation or FPSF to a format like this would require a massive overhaul and months of careful consideration. What works for one festival may not work for another, and as touring bands often build fests like this into their schedule, picking a different time of the year could create as many issues as it might solve. It’s just that when actual or threatened severe weather affects festivals like these multiple years in a row, these instances no longer seem isolated. Maybe FPSF's return to Tinsley this year will go off without a hitch, but only time will tell. Both of these festivals are great ones that the community doesn’t want to lose. It won’t be easy, but it may be time for the organizers to seriously consider whether holding these events at the same location at the same time of the year is truly the best plan going forward. 

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