The Fundamental Problem at the Indiana State Fair

The Hollywood Reporter has this quote from Indiana State Fair officials pertaining to the stage collapse:

“We were in constant contact with the National Weather Service, and we were constantly trying to figure out what was coming, when it was coming and get people to a position of safety as best we could with the information that we had,” Klotz says.
This was the problem in a nutshell: The Fair officials were “playing meteorologist” — trying to figure out for themselves what was coming.  
In the “weather and business” seminars I have been conducting across the country this summer, I talk about “best practices” for businesses when extreme weather threatens. 

Best practice #1 is get out of the weather business.

Meteorology is a complex science and determining the safety of thousands of people is not a role for amateurs. 
Using Saturday night as an example, I understand how the “fine line” (on radar) representing the “gust front” (visually) looked benign to an untrained eye.  
The dangerous winds at 8:30pm EDT, 19 minutes before the stage collapsed.
Arrows denote the leading edge of the strong winds.
White dots are the locations of cloud-to-ground lightning (via Vaisala).
With the permission of photographer Ernie Mills, his photo prior to the
collapse clearly shows the gust front approaching the Fairgrounds.
The gust front corresponds to the “fine line” as viewed on radar. 

But, the Doppler display, which depicts winds (and is rarely seen on television) shows an entirely different story: Dangerous winds of 58 to 72 mph were nearby and closing in!

Dark blue = 58 to 72 mph. Light blue = 73+ mph at 8:30pm. Click to enlarge.
Our AccuWeather meteorologists correctly identified the situation and issued a warning for a client near the Fairgrounds that called for “60 mph winds” a half hour before the time the winds collapsed the stage.
Given this was the third outdoor stage collapse due to wind this summer, there is no reason these tragedies need to continue, at least at the rate they have the last three years. Weather risk mitigation, while newer than other areas of disaster planning, has a time-tested process that works. 
So, how should businesses plan for extreme weather?  The process looks something like this:
  1. Work with a professional meteorologist that specializes in extreme weather.
  2. Meet with the meteorologist do a comprehensive analysis of weather issues and vulnerabilities.
  3. Determine weather thresholds for your specific enterprise  (i.e., winds 40 mph, hail 1″ or larger, etc.) that should trigger action. Then, put an action plan in place for when those thresholds are going to be met.
  4. Determine who needs to get the warning and failsafe communications methods to receive warnings as they are issued. 
  5. Contract with the meteorologist to provide warnings specific to your business.
  6. If a warning is issued, immediately communicate the warning and implement the plan.
One of things our clients like most about our service is that they only hear from us when they should take action. There is no “figuring out” or interpretation to be done. 
I wrote Warnings to explain the rapid progress we have made in storm warnings the last ten years and how those warnings can be used to save lives. It is distressing to see these needless deaths and injuries continue to occur. 
By posting this and the other blog entries below, I’m hoping others learn and, by preventing future tragedies, some good will come from the Indianapolis collapse. 

12 thoughts on “The Fundamental Problem at the Indiana State Fair

  1. No matter how good a forecaster is, he can't be 100% certain to give ample warning of high winds. Therefore:

    0. Erect all structures with proper lateral bracing/guy wires such that it can resist at least hurricane-force (74+ mph) straight-line winds without collapsing.

  2. Monster: I agree which is why I wrote, "there is no reason these tragedies need to continue, at least at the rate they have the last three years." You are right, there will likely be a genuine fluke some time in the future. But, we can warning of the great majority of these events.

    Thanks for the comment.
    Mike

  3. The idea that the event in progress could be suddenly switched off "later" to allow for an orderly mass evacuation, in time to prevent danger to people, was also faulty. So many intangibles existed that the event should have been delayed as of the severe weather alert.

  4. The opening paragraph of the article that you cited states: "The information we had, with our meteorologist on site with constant contact with the National Weather Service, was that we had about 30 more minutes before any kind of rain or storm blew in,"

    Did they really have a meteorologist on site? This is the first time I've seen that reported. If so, he (or she) needs to go back to radar interpretation school..

  5. Agree with posts that event should have been cancelled when the weatehr event was seen. I don't think they were playing Meteorologist, they had those, they were playing God — hoping the event would go away. Even without the severe wind, who would recommend a concert go on in a driving thunderstorm?

  6. We did not have a meteorologist on site. Although I have heard rumors, I do not know it might have been.

  7. Knowing that a weather event was coming they should have canceled the concert. The stage was poorly designed and the fair officials were playing god. Even a person who watches weather as a hobby can tell what they are looking at when they look at the radar!

  8. I have not commented about the engineering aspects of this disaster because, while I have a college minor in engineering, I'm simply not qualified to have an opinion. I don't know the local building codes nor do I know the details of the construction and installation.

    I think it is important for people not to comment on things outside their area(s) of expertise, thus no comments here.

  9. I remember an earlier thread about the warning trapezoids that the NWS started a few years ago. My primary point was about warning fatigue. When you condition people by warning non-affected areas, even the people responsible for public safety are not immune. In the back of their minds is a doubt, is this like the last warning we had for the NW corner of the county, and nothing happened? Unfortunately, many times, it is situations like these resulting in injuries and death, that those old adages change.

    I was at my daughter's house east of Peoria when this line of thunderstorms developed virtually overhead. We watched them move east for the rest of the evening, heading to Indiana. The SPC had watches posted, the NWS and private services made appropriate warnings, unfortunately, the actions did not follow.

    You can see a shelf cloud from a long distance away, why were they caught so unaware of the weather conditions? Radar is great and effective tool, but trained eyes on the sky should have been a bare minimum safeguard.

  10. There are two sets of questions.
    Weather and Structures to protect people.

    You are doing a good job of addressing the issue of weather predictability, and amateurs responsible for thousands of lives. However we see in other disasters that non-experts bring us worse disasters.

    From Japan, we now know that non-experts decided how high Tsunami might be, and risked millions of Japanese lives in nuclear disaster, when experts could have told them what protection needed.

    Cities around USA are at known risk of earthquakes, but inadequate provision for evacuation after the roads are broken.

    We now know that there are building standards for structures like this, which were not used at Indiana Fairgrounds. In fact officials seem to be ignorant that standards are available. Given the high rate of incidents like this, do we need something like the National Transportation Safety Board, which investigates plane crashes, train crashes etc. and explains what could be done to avoid this again. or are individual state authorities good enough, when each state takes turns having an accident like this.

  11. Alister,

    Agree: There have been way too many of these incidents.

    I am generally a fan of the NTSB and have worked with them on a number of occasions and that approach may have validity. I'm not certain a government agency should be involved.

    A concern I have about what is occurring in Indiana is that the state is investigating itself.

    I know that Tim Marshall and Haag Engineering are looking into the structural aspects of the stage collapse and I know Tim to be dedicated engineer. The report he issues is something that should be taken seriously.

    In this case, I'm not sure that government needs to take the lead since, it is clear, government was involved in the flawed decision and has an inherent conflict of interest.

    Mike