Sixty food booths at Jazz Fest, and Jane Finney Haas left hungry.
“I got caught in this literal gridlock,” she said. “No one was moving. No one could see. For 45 minutes everyone was in this tidal wave.”
Haas left the Zatarain’s/WWOZ Jazz Tent about 3:15 p.m. Saturday in pursuit of a bowl of quail gumbo in what she thought would be plenty of time to then make it over to the Blues Tent for Aaron Neville’s set at 4:20 p.m.
She reached neither.
On Saturday at the Acura Stage, frequent overhead camera shots flashed a picture on the wide video screens that many people on the ground, like Haas, knew to be true: There were too many people there.
Crowds not only occupied the entire green space in front of the stage for Elton John’s set at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival presented by Shell, they then stretched onto the surrounding dirt track all the way to the back fence.
Many festgoers complained that they not only could not see but also could not move, which concert safety experts say is often a symptom of a festival that oversells its capacity.
“This can only occur when the promoter oversells an event and public safety officials fail to, or are incapable of, stopping the overcrowding influx of people,” said Paul Wertheimer, founder of Crowd Management Strategies, a Los Angeles-based international crowd safety consulting service.
Wertheimer said festival seating represents “the most deadly and injurious crowd configuration in live entertainment.”
About 460,000 people gathered at the Fair Grounds over the two weekends of Jazz Fest, which concluded Sunday night. That’s up about 6 percent from last year, when an estimated 435,000 attended the festival. This year’s attendance also represents the highest total since Hurricane Katrina. The previous peak was 450,000 people in 2012.
In a news release announcing the attendance numbers, the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival quoted a “social media fan” who called the seven-day event “Music Heaven.” But for dozens of attendees who took to Twitter to complain about crowds, specifically on Saturday, it was more of a congested hell.
“I’ve never experienced anything like that,” said Haas, a New Orleanian who has been going to Jazz Fest nearly every year since 1974. “I was scared even though I’m used to crowds.”
Jazz Fest producers did not respond to a request to address the complaints from attendees, including whether the festival has or should have a capacity limit.
In a statement released Monday, the Fire Department said it was on hand to monitor and control crowd capacity.
“The New Orleans Fire Department was on site to closely monitor the crowds from an elevated position to allow a constant direct view of the entire site including entrance points and was able to make the assessments of the crowd size, flow and safety,” the statement said.
The statement made no mention of what the assessments concluded, nor did it address the reported crush of people on Saturday.
Fire Department inspectors are responsible for posting capacity signs in all tented stages and for patrolling the tents to ensure they aren’t overcrowded and that aisles and exits are clear.
Much of the crowding, however, occurred outside the tents.
Some festivalgoers complained that the portable chairs and blankets many attendees use to mark their space were a major contributor to the gridlock. While the producers have created a separate area for those with chairs, it is common for people to ignore the rules and set up camp in the larger standing area, or the track, which people commonly used to move between stages.
In a statement to The Advocate on Sunday, festival producers said they did institute a standing-room-only policy on the track for Acura Stage performances this year, but “as with any new policy, it sometimes takes a couple of years to achieve full compliance.”
They said they plan “to maintain this policy moving forward” and they are “completely confident the new standing-room-only area will become the norm, as it is best for the overall festival experience.”
That will take enforcement, of which, to date, there has been very little by festival volunteers or staff, said John Hyman of New Orleans, who has attended 40 Jazz Fests.
At the Gentilly Stage on the first weekend this year, when crowds were growing thick before the Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga show, Hyman said he asked volunteers to ask people to fold up their chairs in the standing area and was told that was the job of local police. When he found police officers and asked them the same thing, they replied: “Not our job.”
“There’s no one who wants to take responsibility for enforcing it,” Hyman said. “If they book somebody like Elton John, they know it’s going to happen, but they won’t do anything about it.”
Haas had a similar experience as she tried to make her way from the Jazz Tent to a food vendor.
“We were all looking for someone of authority to enforce the rule,” she said. “This one individual just put his hands up like, ‘There’s nothing I can do.’ ”
Wertheimer said not enforcing rules regarding individual space in a festival environment is “irresponsible.”
“The Jazz Festival organizers have created a situation of mayhem that pits ticketholder against ticketholder and practically guarantees chaos and possibly worse if it isn’t contained,” he said.
He warned that dense crowding in general-admission environments can cause deaths or serious injuries by crushing and can prevent emergency responders from reaching people who may be suffering from heat exhaustion or other ailments.
Saturday’s experience left many fans calling for Jazz Fest to cap ticket sales and assign tickets for particular days instead of making them good for entire weekends.
“If it’s going to be treated like a concert and you’re going to have big names, you’ve got to count the bodies,” Haas said. “I think they should figure out how many bodies they can get in that area.”
Unable to make it through the crowd and to the gumbo she wanted, Haas, who has been to almost every Jazz Fest since 1974, left the festival Saturday before Aaron Neville sang a single note.
“I left because I was furious,” she said. “I walked out.”