Rainy Day Blues
NORTH LIBERTY– It’s enough to make one wonder; does Mother Nature have something against the blues?
For the third time in its eight-year history, North Liberty’s free summer Blues & BBQ festival was altered by weather. And not just unpleasant weather; in 2011, violent winds damaged tents and equipment enough to cause a complete rescheduling of the event two months later. Last year, intermittent rain during the day gave way to severe thunderstorms in the evening, requiring the whole event to be called off early and motivating the planning committee to change the festival’s date from its traditional Memorial Day weekend to mid-July.
Last Saturday, July 12, heavy clouds dumped a sudden downpour on festival-goers, and a storm cell carrying tornado-like activity tracked straight toward North Liberty from the west at 25 mph, putting into effect a tornado watch that lasted until midnight. Shortly thereafter, a weather spotter near Tiffin sighted a funnel cloud, and a North Liberty police officer confirmed the spotting. The potentially dangerous weather prompted the event’s planning committee, advised by local law enforcement officials, to evacuate the premises between 5:30 and 6 p.m.
It was an abrupt end to an otherwise successful day, said planning committee member and North Liberty Police Chief Diane Venenga.
“Most of the people were very understanding, but did not want to get wet making the mad dash to their vehicles. Some others needed a little coaxing, that being underneath an enormous tent was not the safest place to be,” said the police chief.
Venenga later heard reports that the funnel passed over north of Oakdale near Forevergreen Road and never touched down in Johnson County. However, another round of storms was brewing.
“This time an alert came for 60 mile-per-hour winds and hail,” said Venenga. “We had a short break of rain with a beautiful rainbow, and then we had heavy rain the rest of the evening.”
Venenga said the first-hand information provided by local weather spotters and Johnson County’s Emergency Notification System did not show up on the National Weather Service radar, but people witnessed the dark clouds moving in and were cooperative in moving out. While it was most unfortunate to have to cut the event short, Venenga said, but the weather left no option.
“It was sad to see the soggy faces and not being able to enjoy the rest of the show the committee had planned,” she said. “I regret that I had to cancel the show, but I know it was the right decision. The safety of all our guests is and will remain a priority.”
Still, the five-and-a-half hours prior to the storm brought near record-breaking attendance to the eighth annual Blues & BBQ festival. Musicians Kevin “BF” Burt and the FunkDaddies completed full sets on stage, as did the Sidewinders, a National Guard combo that pleased the crowd with covers of some well-known rock, disco and country favorites. Rained out once again were two of the bands that didn’t get an opportunity to play last year: the Curtis Hawkins Band and Quad Cities musician Hal Reed.
Also in full swing during the early hours was vendor alley. Richard Rodney, proprietor of Rodney’s Jamaican Jerk and a returning chef at the annual event, said customers were steady and the crowd was great throughout the afternoon.
“I am happy to be back at Blues & BBQ,” said Rodney. “The people here are very welcoming, very supportive. It’s a good event for families.”
With long lines at each of the children’s outdoor activities like inflatable rides and the interactive petting zoo, a pavilion chock full of families enjoying various arts-inspired, hands-on fun provided by local nonprofit organizations, and a busy beer garden with a number of craft brews from five different Iowa breweries, Blues & BBQ 2104 can still be counted as a winner, said committee chair Nick Bergus, starting with the new venue at Centennial Park.
“It’s gorgeous, and the time, effort and care that Guy Goldsmith, Tim Hamer, Brian Hamer and the rest of the North Liberty Parks Department put into it shows. It’s great being able to showcase a city park as part of the event, and I think it will make an amazing backdrop for years to come,” Bergus said.
Bergus said the event’s upbeat atmosphere was the real bellwether of its success.
“The new Everyday Arts tent was a big hit, and we already have some ideas to make it better in 2015,” said Bergus. “During and after, our guests were very, very positive. The mood was light and I could tell folks were having fun.”
Whether or not the committee will make another date change is up doubtful, though Bergus said the group always does a post-event evaluation.
“As always, we’ll talk about what worked well and what needs improvement, but I wouldn’t expect another date change. The move (to July) wasn’t just to avoid storms, which are always a risk to outdoor events, but also put us in less conflict with a big travel weekend, high-school graduations, and allowed the park department to better prepare for an event of this size,” Bergus said.
Venenga also commented on the preparation it takes to host Blues & BBQ.
“This event would not be possible without the sponsors, bands, vendors, and all the volunteers who commit their time to help celebrate North Liberty and our citizens,” said Venenga. “There is a lot of time and planning put into this event. The organizers do a great job and plan for several contingencies, but we cannot plan for Iowa weather.”
No worries. Even heavy rainstorms won’t dampen Bergus’ spirits in looking forward.
“It was exciting to be in our new home, and know that we’ll get to grow with the park,” Bergus said. “And, as always, it was awesome to get the community together, and put on a great festival that showed it off to guests from around the state.
The public can sign up for severe weather alerts through the Johnson County Emergency Notification System at www.jecc-ema.org/jecc/jeccjcens.php.