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. 

The Horror in Indianapolis

Before reading this posting, please keep in mind that information on this event is very preliminary and some of the media reporting on which this posting is based may be inaccurate or incomplete. I’m writing this because there are numerous State Fairs and other outdoor events in progress both now and during the rest of summer. My goal, as always, is to provide information that can save lives.

According to The Indianapolis Star, five have died and forty are injured — some very seriously — as a result of the collapse of the stage at the Indiana State Fair yesterday evening. Below is video of the collapse.

In the tape, we see lighting in the distance and blowing dust but no rain at the fairgrounds. That immediately suggested to me that a thunderstorm-generated “gust front” had moved through causing the very strong winds.

This is verified by radar. The thin light blue line is known to radar meteorologists as a “fine line” (arrows) which represents very strong winds out ahead of the precipitation (the green-yellow-red colors). At 8:30pm EST EDT, the fine line is in northwestern Marion Co. (the county containing the Fairgrounds).

NWS radar data at 7:30pm EST via University Corporation for Atmospheric Research, click to enlarge. 

The radar shows the fine line containing the strong winds passing the Fairgrounds two minutes before the collapse.

click to enlarge

If this was an isolated incident, it would be a tragedy. But, weather-related outdoor stage collapses have hardly been rare in recent years. Just in the last two months, according to CNN,

Earlier this month, severe weather caused a stage to collapse before a Flaming Lips performance in Oklahoma.
The August 6 incident occurred after heavy winds and rain pounded Tulsa, ending a block party music festival that featured Primus, the Flaming Lips and other acts. A lighting rig fell down and struck audio equipment and instruments. It was unclear whether there were any injuries.
And last month, a severe storm toppled a stage when classic rock band Cheap Trick was performing. No one was seriously hurt during the incident at the Cisco Ottawa Bluesfest in Canada.

So, how are these events protecting their performers and customers?

In the case of the Indianapolis State Fair, if early reporting is correct, they used radar on a smartphone.

But the weather near the Indiana State Fairgrounds was starting to get dicey. Backstage, State Police special operations commander Brad Weaver was watching an ugly storm moving in on radar via his smartphone. He and fair Executive Director Cindy Hoye decided it was time to evacuate the crowd.
But a minute later, when WLHK program director Bob Richards addressed the crowd, the word was that the show would go on, and that the crowd should be prepared to find shelter if things changed. Some of the crowd sensed the danger and left without further word. But the majority remained.

When I do my presentations across the country on weather risk mitigation, I talk about the difference between “consumer-grade” and “business-grade” weather.

Smartphones contain useful information about weather, but the information is not robust enough to be used for mass safety purposes. The radar on smartphones is often 5 to 7 minutes old before it is posted. It often does not contain the details (like “fine lines”) needed to get a complete picture of a threat. And, even if the radar is current and detailed, does a non-meteorologist have the expertise needed to make a correct interpretation?

According to Fox News,

Bursten said emergency personnel and fair officials were monitoring the weather because a severe storm had been expected to hit the area around 9:15 p.m. But the storm hit shortly before 9 p.m.

He said preparations were being made to evacuate the facility but that the “significant gust of wind” struck the stage rigging that holds lights and other equipment before the evacuation plan was activated.

“As we all know, weather can change in a very rapid period of time,” he said.

This event was predictable. Our team at AccuWeather Enterprise Solutions was monitoring the weather for a client near the Fairgrounds. We issued a warning for 60 mph winds at 8:23pm EDT valid from 8:45 until 9:25pm. According to the National Weather Service’s preliminary report, the collapse occurred between 8:50 and 8:55pm.

Why did we get the warning out early? Because our meteorologists had the most detailed radar information available, ground truth as the storm moved in, and the expertise to recognize the fine line and threat it posed even though, to the untrained eye, the thin line of light blue color out ahead of the main area of storms appeared benign.

I do not have an opinion whether it is practical to design an outdoor stage that can withstand 60 to 70 mph winds (the speed estimated by the National Weather Service), but I do know the science and technology exist to provide advance warning in order to evacuate people when severe thunderstorms present themselves. Given the large number of outdoor stage collapses in the last three years, I believe it is time for the outdoor events industry to take a second look at their weather protection practices.

TV Tornado Warnings Really Make a Difference

From the American Meteorological Society’s conference on storm warnings in Oklahoma City we learn that TV tornado warnings — and, how well the TV stations in the market are equipped with the latest technology really does make a difference in the casualty rates of tornadoes.

A paper by Sutter and Simmons of the University of Texas examined numerous variables in an attempt to find out what was most important in cutting the number of deaths and injuries in tornadoes. Turns out the #1 indicator was the number of station-owned Doppler radars (as a proxy for how well TV stations in the markets were equipped overall to cover violent weather).

The second largest indicator was income, which is something demographers have known for a long time. The higher the average income, the more robust the housing stock and the better sheltered people are for tornadoes.  We learned that 7% of the housing in the U.S. is mobile homes but they account for 43% of tornado fatalities!

One somewhat amusing note from the conference was that a scientist due to deliver a paper on forecasting was not here this afternoon because he was hung up by an airline delay due to weather.

The airlines have gotten so bad (worst industry in terms of customer service per a new study of 47 industries) that I now plan to go in the day before. As a meteorologist, it really looks bad if I cannot make it due to weather, especially since I constantly preach the virtues of proactive weather risk mitigation.

Relative Risks

Yesterday’s New York Times has a map of relative risks for more than 300 cities that you can access here.

The only quibble I would have is the low risk they assign to Boulder, Colorado. There is a high potential risk of flash flooding there — it just hasn’t occurred recently. I would put them in the overall “medium” rather than “low” category.

Finally, they don’t take into account ice storms and sudden blizzards. As the people of Kentucky can tell you, it is possible to be without electricity for more than three weeks (!) after a major ice storm (this occurred in late-January and February, 2009).

Otherwise, the map seems reasonable.

See You in Charlotte

I’ll be addressing the Risk and Insurance Management Society, Carolinas Chapter, over lunch in Charlotte Thursday. Details here.

Originally, I was to talk about hurricanes. I’m going to add information about Saturday’s tornado outbreak in the Carolinas.

Looking forward to it!

"Weather Insurance" — From Airlines?

The Wall Street Journal has an online article about new fees being charged by just about every airline with more to come. The article is here (subscription may be required). Something that caught my eye is that airlines are planning to offer weather insurance. Given how poorly airlines react to weather, it seems farfetched but apparently it is true. Here is what the Journal says:

Airsavings S.A., a Paris-based firm that creates products for airlines to sell, thinks the industry “is at the end of the road” for charging for once-free services, says CEO Raphael Bejar. Now, carriers’ emphasis is shifting to new services that allow flyers to customize their travel, he says.
Airsavings offers weather insurance and runs a travel concierge service that consumers can buy on a per-trip basis. It recommends restaurants, arranges for theater tickets and re-books travel when necessary.

I did a little research and found out more about the “weather insurance” product:

PARIS,, Jul 14, 2010 (M2 PRESSWIRE via COMTEX) — Weather, for the average traveler, is the ultimate unknown.

Because of this inherent variability, and because most leisure travelers book their trips well ahead of reliable forecasts, financial indemnity against inclement weather presents a tantalizing market opportunity for operators in the global travel and tourism industry. One airline, Czech low cost carrier SmartWings, in partnership with ancillary revenue development leader Airsavings, is capitalizing on that market to its fullest, with an innovative program called MeteoBonus…

MeteoBonus is a new-to-the-market service that allows travelers to protect their travel investment against weather disruption. Developed by Airsavings, Meteobonus provides customers booking with SmartWings (and eventually other carriers) to purchase financial assurance against both rainy weather and lack of sunshine. MeteoBonus is not trip insurance, however, which is designed to protect passengers from the unanticipated calamity. Rather, Meteonbonus a financial derivative created to help consumers hedge against the two most typical holiday-busters: rain and lack of sunshine.

The MeteoBonus process is straightforward: a traveler buys the weather protection, and if more rain than average falls in their destination during their trip (or if less sunshine is recorded), a predetermined amount of money is automatically paid to them. Meteorological data is based on the nearest weather station to the destination, and corroborated by the World Meteorological Association.

There is less to this than meets the eye. For example, lets assume you book a trip to Florida in March planning to escape the snows farther north and lay on the beach. What happens if a cold wave hits? No reimbursement. What happens if it is extremely windy (blowing sand, unpleasant to lay out)? No reimbursement. Finally, it says more rain “than average” during your trip. Florida is hardly a dry state and could rain 2 days out of five and not be above average.

Plus, the determination is made at the nearest weather station (which are at airports, not on beaches) which might not be reflective of the weather you experienced.

A far better strategy is to do what I do when planning a vacation: Book a resort that will experience the weather I want. With the increasing accuracy of weather forecasts, I often wait until about 5-7 days ahead to book the trip. While you might have a different experience, Kathleen and I have been doing this for years and have never once been disappointed.

Not paying the extra fee for “weather insurance” should offset all or part of any higher fares for waiting to book your trip.

Did Humans Create 52 Rainstorms in the Desert?

I am skeptical of this story that claims, “Technology created 50 rainstorms in Abu Dhabi’s Al Ain region last year.”

Yes, putting a charge on the particles would attract moisture, that seems solid. However, I don’t know where the additional moisture to create the storms would have come from, after all it still is the desert.

The problem with evaluating intentional or inadvertent weather modification is there is no “parallel atmosphere” that we can experiment with to see what would have naturally occurred absent, in this case, the charged particles.  The explanation for more rain occurring than the long term average may have just been a relatively wet year.

Man has wanted to intentionally influence the weather since almost the beginning of time. We’ll see whether this claim can withstand scientific scrutiny.

Behind the Scenes at the Symphony

I want to introduce you to two of the hardest working people around, Emily Hunter (left), the executive director of Symphony in the Flint Hills and Linda Craighead the site manager of the event. While everyone was having a great time, these two were in constant motion behind the scenes to insure everything went well. 
From 9 o’clock Saturday morning through 10:45pm, the three of us worked together, along with the meteorologists at WeatherData’s forecast center, to insure the 7,200 people (a complete sell-out) were safe in the remote location. Lightning, hail, high winds, tornadoes and flash floods were all possible the day of the event because of a stationary front right over the site and extremely unstable air to the south.  I spent virtually the entire day glued to the computer because of volatility of the weather situation.
At 10:30am, when we had the official weather meeting, things looked grim at first glance: There were thunderstorms 9 miles to the southeast and 12 miles northeast of the site and a drizzle was falling. However, given the newly developed tools created by the NOAA Storm Prediction Center, I was able to confidently forecast that the event could be safely held, at least until 9pm, even though things weren’t ideal at decision time. I said the skies would start to clear around 1pm.
Banners depicting the bluestem tallgrass accented with musical instruments. 
The first forecast turned out to be excellent. The first patches of blue sky showed themselves at 1:16pm.
The second forecast held as well. We were able to get through the entire concert in good shape.  We were hopeful that we would get through the after-concert activities (music, a dance, etc.) but Mother Nature intervened. 
Towering cumulus clouds southwest of the site shortly before the concert began indicated the unstable atmosphere that was ripe for thunderstorm development.
A small area of thunderstorms with both in-cloud and cloud-to-ground lightning developed south southwest of the site and started moving directly toward it. While conditions had been unfavorable for thunderstorm development prior to sunset, the tools I had indicated that those thunderstorms could be sustained. Given that it would take people, once informed, 45 minutes to walk to their cars (there was no safe shelter at the site, which is selected for its remoteness deep in the Flint Hills) I advised Emily to spread the word that lightning was possible and that people should move to the safety of their cars. The forecast caused the post-concert parties to be shortened.
The finale of the concert. 
Well, Mother Nature surprised me and the storms dissipated before reaching the site.
As I write in Warnings, the next challenge for weather science is to cut down on the false alarms. The tools I had indicated conditions were right for thunderstorm intensification (which did indeed occur about an hour later.) Meteorology is doing a very good job getting alerts out before dangerous storms, but our techniques to tell when storms are going to weaken are not as mature.
From the people I have spoken with, no one seemed too disappointed. I believe people realize that it is better to err on the side of safety – getting to their cars dry, at a leisurely pace, and safely.

Why Private Sector Weather Services Are Valuable to Businesses

The folks at Disaster Recovery Journal have an article of mine up at their web site on why private sector weather companies are usually a better choice for businesses than using the National Weather Service warnings intended for the public.

You can learn more about WeatherData’s services for businesses at WeatherData’s web site. 

The Economic Importance of Weather

The Wall Street Journal reminds us of the economic importance of weather.

NEW YORK — Monday marked the first day of winter in the Northern Hemisphere, and the snowstorm that blanketed the East Coast this weekend was just the latest reminder that weather holds a tremendous sway on economic activity.
Winter’s impact presents a particularly big risk to the outlook. The second half of 2009 has seen fairly robust activity as the U.S. has come out of recession. But if the weather drags down first-quarter growth, expect to hear more talk of a double-dip downturn. Economists will have to separate the problems caused by Mother Nature versus the longer-term weakness from deleveraging and high unemployment.

More here.

Just How Good Are Weather Forecasts?

In my forthcoming book, Warnings:  The True Story of How Science Tamed the Weather, I tell the story of how weather science has created an highly effective system that saves countless lives during hurricanes and tornadoes, and prevents airline crashes.

I did not include winter storms because I doubted that anyone would want to read a 1,000 page book.  That said, meteorology has made tremendous strides with all types of storms.  How much progress?  Take a look at this map of WeatherData’s forecast of the weekend blizzard with the actual snowfall amounts in red numerals (click on image to enlarge).

Pretty amazing, isn’t it?

Our presentations teach businesses how to adapt the best of weather science into their operation and risk management strategies to increase both profits and safety.  You can learn more at our web site.  Call us today or after the holidays.