This has been a test of the emergency Lollapalooza system

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with Emily Morris and Mitchell Herrmann

Lollapalooza fans evacuate Grant Park

ahead of approaching storms Saturday. (Scott Stewart/Sun-Times)“We need to clear the whole park.”

That was the first audio announcement from the southern main stage Saturday afternoon at Lollapalooza in Grant Park. In the next hour, the day’s entire sold-out crowd was evacuated from the park — the first such procedure in Lollapalooza’s eight years as an annual event in Chicago — ahead of a squall line of severe storms that moved through Chicago featuring lightning, downpours and high winds.

“In all, more than 60,000 festival-goers and nearly 3,000 staff, artists and vendors were safely evacuated in 38 minutes,” said a late-night statement from Lollapalooza producers C3 Presents.

Two and a half hours later, the crowds were back in the muddy park and bands were playing on a revised schedule. Storms? What storms?

Read more about the evacuation

See photos from day 2, including the evacuation

Here’s a run-down of what we experienced:

The announcement

Saturday’s weather forecast had been ominous for days, and by morning the squall line was already charging eastward across Iowa. C3 Presents released the details of their emergency plan, and a few hours later — at 3:30 p.m., after the National Weather Service issued a severe thunderstorm warning for Chicago — we all experienced it.

According to that plan, in the event of the decision to evacuate the park ahead of severe weather, announcements would be made via audio and video. (C3 claims both occurred, though every fan we spoke with said they saw no video announcements.) The information was also reported on the Lollapalooza web site, Facebook page, Twitter account and transmitted to 40,000-plus subscribers to the festival’s mobile app. Many fans we spoke with had heard the news via texts and tweets well before announcements came from the stage.

Several fans reported confusion about the information given, or lack thereof. “They just told us to get out and find the nearest shelter,” said Sara Parolin of Kansas City. “I guess that’s where we’re going.”

The evacuation

Many took the news in stride, and most everyone proceeded calmly and casually toward one of several exits on the west side of Grant Park.

Not everyone wanted to leave, though. Shortly after the announcements, hundreds lingered in front of Perry’s stage on the southwest corner of Columbus and Balbo. Matt Colello of Woodstock was one of them. “For those who spent $250 on tickets, we don’t want to leave,” he said. “Hopefully, it’ll be quick.”

His friend, Donald Stephens of Chicago, added: “And on the off chance this becomes a huge mud pit dance party …” He raised his eyebrows expectantly.

In a bit of irony, new barricades in place around the park to keep fence-jumpers from entering illegally held firm as fans tried to exit the park — though several jumped the fence to get out rather than sneak in.

Clearing the park was one thing, and seemed to be accomplished in a timely manner (with plenty of time before the storm hit) and relatively easily. Giving the nearly 60,000 people someplace to go, however, seemed another matter.

As I began to exit the park, I asked staff near the inside gate where we were being directed. I was told to proceed to the next gate where there would be instructions. The outer gate poured us all onto Michigan Avenue, and there was no one giving directions. There was no staff in sight. Fans were simply flowing onto Michigan Avenue, snarling traffic and scattering.

(Scott Stewart/Sun-Times)“Once we were outside of the park, there was no information or directions anywhere,” said Noah Hyrent of Roselle.

They filled hotels and businesses, some of which reacted against the influx. At a Starbucks at Michigan and Balbo, employees ordered everyone out of the packed coffee shop, even customers who had beverages in their hands. A liquor store near Michigan and Congress locked its doors.

“As we crossed Michigan, I saw all these people looking out the windows in the hotel at this horde of people coming for them,” said Kevin Spry of Downer’s Grove, seeking shelter underneath the Congress Hotel’s southern awning.

One Chicago Police officer, leaning casually against a fence along Michigan Ave., quipped: “There’s no place out here for 100,000 people to go.”

Inside the Congress Hotel, masses of mostly cheery festgoers congregated in the hotel’s bar and in the Gold Room, where some brought their own cases of beer. There were plenty of whoops and yells as concertgoers continued to drink and tried to have a good time despite having to leave the fest. Dan Shaughnessy, 31, of Midway, played for the crowd.

The quick-thinking owner of a bar called Quay commandeered a school bus and sent it to ferry wayward fans to his establishment on Navy Pier.

The return

By 6 p.m., word-of-mouth spread news that the gates were reopening. Lines formed back at the two entrances, and at 6:30 p.m. — as the rain just about stopped — fans were readmitted. At first, Lollapalooza staff tried to make everyone re-scan their wristbands but then abandoned that sluggish procedure for quicker visual checks.

Fans stream back into Hutchinson Field on Saturday for the restarted Lollapalooza.

(Video by Thomas Conner/Sun-Times)

Back inside, the scene was swampy, especially in Hutchinson Field — which was full of gulls quite enjoying the newly created wetlands. Trash cans were turned over and large puddles spotted the landscape. In no time, several young women were purposely bathing in the muck and sliding in the mud.

(Thomas Conner/Sun-Times)A clump of readmitted fans clustered in front of the Red Bull main stage affirmed their conviction by singing the national anthem and shouting, “USA! USA!”

One by one, the stages came back online, with Perry’s dance stage first pumping out the “Star Wars” theme. Not everyone was back on the schedule, however. Several bands had their remaining sets trimmed and others, including the eagerly anticipated Southern neo-soul band Alabama Shakes, had their sets canceled.

Chicago alt-rock band Empires was one of the unlucky cancellations. After tweeting a single but potent curse word, the band followed up with, “Our set is canceled. Nothing we can do about it. Hard to put into words how bummed we are. Thank you to everyone that traveled.”

City officials allowed the park curfew to stretch from 10 p.m. to 10:45 p.m. to accommodate the rest of the acts.

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