Hurricane Threat Forces Cancellation of Many M.L.K. Memorial Dedication Events

By D. Channing Muller August 29, 2011, 1:30 PM EDT

Photo: Eli Turner

A planned five days of celebrations surrounding the dedication of the Martin Luther King Memorial in West Potomac Park had to be cut down to just two and a half, due to inclement weather. The threat of Hurricane Irene's impending arrival on the East Coast on Saturday caused organizers with the Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial Project Foundation Inc. and National Parks Service to cancel all events after Saturday morning's prayer service.

“It was a very heavy decision to make, because we knew how much went into it and how much excitement there was about the weekend with so many people planning to travel [in town],” said Marty Mackay, president of GEP Washington, which headed the team of local organizers for the weekend’s events. “With that said, it was important we try to make the decision as soon as possible, as we didn’t want people to travel here if things weren’t going to happen.”

The memorial foundation made the official announcement on Thursday evening with a press conference at Walter E. Washington Convention Center. Officials relied on the local news stations, as well as CNN and C-SPAN, to get the news of the schedule changes out quickly to the public. Invited guests who’d R.S.V.P.’d to the various events were also contacted directly by staffers. The decision affected the weekend hours of the Partners in the Dream public expo at the convention center on Saturday and Sunday, the Celebrate the Dream gala planned for Saturday evening, and the dedication ceremony and concert supposed to take place yesterday in the park.

With expected winds of 100 miles per hour for the Category 2 storm (its strength until landfall on Saturday), Hargrove Inc. immediately began deconstructing the dedication sitewhich consisted of 30,000 seats, staging, and 65,000 square feet of flooring, and which had taken the company three days to set upon Friday morning. To expedite the deconstruction, the park service granted the company a 24-hour work permit for the 150 employees to take down the chairs, lighting, rigging, and other elements that could be hazardous in the storm, and closed four lanes of Independence Avenue to ease load-out. Due to time constraints, the main floor of the stage remained in place, though heavily weighted and anchored down, until it could be removed at some point today or tomorrow.

Before Irene threatened the weekend, Tuesday’s earthquake shook up plans, forcing Wednesday night’s Honoring Global Leaders for Peace gala to be moved from the National Building Museum to the convention center just 24 hours before its planned start. The last-minute change had Events by André Wells, Hargrove, and GEP staffers scrambling to secure the new venue, redesign the layout of the seated dinner for 1,200, and load in all of the production elements.

The festivities continued as planned on Thursday night with the Message in the Music concert, featuring performances by Patti LaBelle, India Arie, and Stevie Wonder, among others.

The Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity scooped up extra hype for its black-tie Monumental Life Celebration—which included a V.I.P. reception and theatrical and musical depiction of King’s life—on Friday night at the D.A.R. Constitution Hall, followed by a post-party at the Mayflower Hotel. “So many people came with their gowns and tuxes to celebrate, and since Saturday got canceled, we definitely had some extra interest [as the only other formal event],” said event producer André Wells.

The official memorial dedication is being rescheduled for September or October, according to the foundation. 

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