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Why Tampa's Sunset Music Festival was rained out on a sunny day

Jacob Lacerte and Colin Burrowes dance to the music while wearing life preservers at Sunset Music Festival.  [Saturday May 26, 2018] [Photo Luis Santana | Times]
Jacob Lacerte and Colin Burrowes dance to the music while wearing life preservers at Sunset Music Festival. [Saturday May 26, 2018] [Photo Luis Santana | Times]
Published May 30, 2018

Inside Raymond James Stadium Sunday morning, John Santoro faced a room of Tampa police, fire rescue and stadium officials, and made his final promoter's plea:

"This is going to be barbecue weather."

Authorities were unmoved. Despite sunny spring weather outside, the city of Tampa was still under a tropical storm warning due to Subtropical Storm Alberto. The governor's office had declared a state of emergency. And so, less than four hours before gates were to open to 20,000 electronic music fans, the Tampa Sports Authority pulled the plug.

"I was nauseous," Santoro, the festival's founder, said Tuesday. "I felt bad for all those people that traveled, they spent their time, their money, their excitement, their love."

Sunday will go down as the day the city canceled its biggest annual music festival due to weather, despite crystal blue skies all day, flummoxing fans and DJs and leaving organizers facing potential multimillion-dollar losses.

Breaking down the decision on Tuesday, officials on both sides of the decision had a similar reaction: Hindsight's 20-20, right?

"Was everybody disappointed? Yeah, we were disappointed," said Bobby Silvest, spokesman for the Tampa Sports Authority. "It was going to be a great Day 2. But if all that weather had come in, it sure wouldn't have been.

"It's weather in Florida, for God's sake," Silvest added. "Hell, I wish I could predict it. I'd be sitting on a beach in the Bahamas."

Santoro couldn't argue with city officials' reasoning.

"You can't reverse-engineer these decisions," he said. "The thing that will drive you crazy is trying to look at it from now backwards. It's unfair to everybody. What you have to do is look at it at the time, with the information they had available to them. That's why they're the professionals."

The cancellation was another blow to the seemingly snake-bitten SMF, which in years past has drawn more than 50,000 fans over two days. In 2014 and 2015, the festival grounds were briefly evacuated due to heavy rains and lightning. In 2016, two fans died as a result of drug overdoses, prompting condemnation from Mayor Bob Buckhorn and several security overhauls.

On Saturday, Tampa Police made 34 mostly drug-related arrests — an increase from Day 1 in 2017 and 2016 — including 18 felonies. Tampa Fire Rescue handled 66 calls for medical attention, taking 30 fans — a four-year high for Day 1 — to the hospital for non life-threatening injuries.

BOUNCING BACK: A year after club fire and Sunset Music Festival deaths, John Santoro rebuilds

Even this year's lineup announcement was not without drama: Hours after announcing the Chainsmokers as their 2018 headliners, organizers had to pull a mea culpa, saying the chart-topping duo had dropped out due to "unforeseen circumstances."

On Friday, Alberto became the season's first named tropical system. Saturday went on as planned with less rain than expected; Santoro described the mood as "magical." Even when a tropical storm warning went into effect for Tampa Bay at 5 p.m. Saturday, all parties involved opted for a wait-and-see approach on Sunday.

Another large Tampa concert wasn't about to take chances. In the middle of Saturday's Tampa Bay Margarita Festival, which drew 5,000 fans to Curtis Hixon Park, city officials revoked their event permit for Day 2 on Sunday due to weather fears, and to better reallocate city resources toward a potential storm response.

"With tropical storm conditions imminent, there is no way to guarantee the safety of participants at the festival," the city's special events superintendent, Tony Mulkey, wrote in a notice to Margarita Fest organizers at 6:24 p.m. Saturday.

On Sunday morning, Tampa Police and Fire Rescue echoed some of those same concerns regarding Sunset. After consulting with all parties, Mickey Farrell, TSA's vice president of stadium operations, emailed organizers the official word at 11:46 a.m.: Sunset was canceled "to protect the health, safety and welfare of the fans, staff and community."

Paige Lopynski, half of the Los Angeles DJ duo Bonnie X Clyde, was about to leave her room at the Westin Tampa Bay when she saw SMF's official announcement on Instagram. Immediately, their social media started blowing up.

"There were definitely a lot of angry fans, for sure," Lopynski said.

"More just angry at the situation than anything," said Bonnie X Clyde's Daniel Litman. "Because people go broke for this weekend."

Well before Tampa's tropical storm warning was lifted at 5 p.m. Sunday, fans started tweeting photos and clips of clear skies to festival organizers, demanding a better explanation. All organizers could say was that it wasn't their call.

No need to continue sending pics I'm here. I see it. @SMFTampa #2018 pic.twitter.com/uEol0qVFV1

"I understand people's frustrations," Santoro said. "Blue skies, sunny, and they can't find a place to go. How would you not be disappointed and upset? I get it."

On the other hand, fans and performers familiar with the whims of Florida weather understood.

"We used to live in Florida, and Florida's weather conditions, they change really, really quickly," Lopynski said. "I was thinking in my head, what if we are performing out there and some crazy thing goes down?"

Organizers tried to salvage to salvage the night. They expanded what would've been an after-party at the Ritz Ybor into a four clubs spread across the city, with most of Sunday's main stage headliners lined up to perform. It was an imperfect solution, "trying to put 20,000 people in 3,500-capacity-total rooms," Santoro said. "There's no workaround for that."

TAKING THINGS ELSEWHERE: Sunset Music Festival cancellation sends DJs, fans scrambling to clubs across Tampa

SMF's focus now is on refunding ticketholders for Sunday's cancellation. Then, surely, will come a protracted insurance battle over how much of promoters' losses will be covered. Santoro declined to talk about specific claims, allowing only that as of Tuesday, he and his partners are on the hook for millions.

Santoro is already looking ahead to 2019, when he believes SMF will be welcomed back. A 2016 study commissioned by the festival estimated it had a direct economic impact of $10.2 million, including $1.3 million in state and local taxes.

"I just think that in 2019, we have to come out bigger, better, stronger, happier," he said. "That's the reality of it. You live, you learn, and you move on."

Contact Jay Cridlin at cridlin@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8336. Follow @JayCridlin.

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