Sunday, August 14, 2011

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.

21 comments:

  1. There was another stage which collapsed at BluesFest in Ottawa, Canada on July 18th.

    The stage which collapsed in Canada was designed to withstand winds of up to 75 mph.

    I question how exactly Fair patrons were expected to "seek shelter?" Is there a large tornado shelter on the fairgrounds property? If not, should there be??

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  2. As an individual -- and I understand why the following may be way too simplistic for the event planners to use -- I tend to be very cautious in attending an outdoor event right smack-dab in the middle (both geographically and time-wise) of a severe thunderstorm watch.

    http://www.spc.noaa.gov/products/watch/ww0777.html

    I realize how some watches include areas that in the end are nowhere near where the storms go, but in this case, smack dab in the middle, and with hordes and hordes of people planning to be there, I am so conservative that I think I would either have left the fair, or at the very least decided to see the exhibits in one of their more sturdy buildings rather than go to the concert.

    As for what the organizers should do, I well remember an exchange with Mike after that Thursday of Wichita River Festival week whether the organizers could have gone an extra hour or so before cancelling all events. It may have been that Wichita organizers were a little too quick to cancel, and, from preliminary info., Indianapolis ones too slow. I'm not smart enough to judge the public policy issues there. But as for personal decisions involving myself, friends and family, I would have looked at that Watch (hey, the NWS must have had a reason!), did some other checking, and steered away from the concert.

    Conservatively yours,. . .

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  3. I believe this comes down to an issue you hit upon in "Warnings." That is: effective warnings from the NWS are not always being properly managed by local officials, or in this case, event organizers. It sounds to me (again, speculating a bit based off the initial reports) that public safety officials wanted to evacuate and event organizers did not. Hard to blame the victims in this instance when they're receiving conflicting messages from those in charge.

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  4. Mike,

    Good to see you in Wichita at the conference...

    I continue to be as concerned as I have always been about untrained people making life and death decisions based on "radar data". Short conversations with such people confirm that they do not know nor do they understand how to interpret the data properly. Moreover, they seem sublimely confident that they are "in the know" and are knowledgeable about storm structure as seen on radar. No doubt a hand full of these people actually are competent but the vast majority are definitely not even though they think they are.

    Bottom line: There will be more of these. And more deaths too.

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  5. Jim,

    Good seeing you, too.

    This is a problem a touch on in the book and in my public presentations: Everyone THINKS they are a meteorologist. They do not realize the high level of training and skill needed to properly interpret the data and make the right call.

    This is why I wrote "Warnings" and is why we, as profession, need to do a better job of getting this message out.

    Mike

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  6. Outside of the meteorology it would be helpful to have a structural engineer sign off on these. Use "canned" designs that are approved. Another thought would be to have curtains that could be raised or better yet lowered quickly when the wind increases, thus drastically reducing surface area.

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  7. Yes, Gene, that thought occurred to me, too. Excellent suggestions.

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  8. I am a spotter/chaser in the Spfld,IL area. State fair officials should have never let people in the grandstands or on the pit row area in front of the stage with a good possibility that severe weather would hit the area.Many people just don't take the weather and it's warnings seriously. I as a spotter feel that one of my most important jobs is to get the info in the right hands so residents are warned.

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  9. @ Springfield, IL spotter: Thank you for your very important work!

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  10. Quick fix on your timestamp - 8:30pm EST should be EDT.

    This is above all a construction issue. Had the stage been capable of withstanding 60mph winds (a "duh" in Indiana) then we would have some neat YouTube videos of chairs knocked over and garbage cans rolling on the ground. This was an otherwise non-noteworthy storm.

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  11. When you watch the video, take a good look at the vertical supports, there are two on each side of the stage both in the front, and in the back. Had there been cross bracing "x-bracing" between these sets of two supports, the rigging would not have racked.

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  12. I agree wholeheartedly with your emphasis on trained meteorologists interpreting weather information when the public safety is at stake.

    My question is this. Even if the fine-line hadn't been visible on the radar image (as on a smart phone), wouldn't the clearly visible severe thunderstorm behind it been enough to warrant a much earlier evacuation? You can see lightning in the video and very foreboding skies. It seems that enough time was not allowed to evacuate the stands, given the size of the crowd, gust front or not.

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  13. I live in Springfield IL also -- thank you to our local spotter for his/her fine work!

    Around 4:30 p.m. Saturday we also had a severe thunderstorm warning for high winds and large hail (perhaps these were the early stages of the storms that hit Indiana). The text from NWS in Lincoln IL specifically mentioned that "persons attending the Illinois State Fair are in the path of this storm." There was some pretty spectacular large hail around the area -- up to 2" in Mt. Pulaski, about 25 miles NE of Springfield -- but as far as I know, nothing at the fairgrounds itself.

    In 2009 an EF3 tornado struck Williamsville, about 10 miles N of Springfield, while the State Fair was in progress. That particular storm didn't directly threaten the fairgrounds, but had its track shifted a bit further south, it easily could have.

    What happened in Indy is exactly the kind of scenario that, if I were a local emergency manager, would be keeping me awake at night (I wouldn't be surprised if that is actually the case).

    Elaine

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  14. @Becca. There probably was enough data. But, the point is that it is important to have trained meteorologists to make these calls.

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  15. Great article. I'm not a meteorologist, but I am a former weather spotter. I do appreciate all the hard work that the trained meteorologists do.

    I'm concerned that it appears no weather radio or other information was available, in the absence of a meteorologist. Some of the counties west of Indianapolis had severe thunderstorm warnings and supposedly high winds in excess of 70 mph and large hail. A severe thunderstorm watch was in place by around 6:00 p.m. EDT. (All of Indiana observes DST now, alas). I've read reports that Conner Prairie, just north of Indianapolis, did cancel its outdoor events Saturday night about an hour before the storm. Maybe they had access to a meteorologist, but if not, they were right to be prudent. My guess is that the state fair has had concerts during storms before without there being any consequences. Therefore, no one wanted to cancel the show last night, even with plenty of evidence that it was not safe to have an outdoor concert.

    I think it would be great to have a meteorologist on hand at outdoor venues such as fairgrounds and ball parks, but in this instance there was plenty of information available about the severity of these storms, if not the gust front itself. If people in charge at the fairgrounds failed to obtain that information or to act on it in time, they can't blame NWS or the smart phone. I would think that a line of thunderstorms approaching the area with numerous warnings associated with it would have been enough reason to cancel the event.

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  16. One thing to note on them being slow to cancel it, is that the structure has been there for years, and possibly survived worse (though the tarp was apparently a recent, and possibly the deadly addition based on the video I've seen). Should they have been canceling for weather? Probably, but it's possible that they wanted to wait it out due due to the fact that in past years there has been many concerts canceled due to severe weather that never happened.

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  17. Note that the NWS did issue a severe thunderstorm warning for Marion Co (covering the fairgrounds) at 8:39pm EDT.

    The communication chain from those with the weather information (private or gov't) to those who would have to implement an evacuation is often not tightly coupled, and those depending on such short-fuse information (wanting to wait as long as possible to make sure they are not evacuating unnecessarily) have to be absolutely sure their OODA loop is pretty short. Most of the time it is not.

    There was a similar event in Omaha for the start of the College World Series where strong outflow producing 70-75 mph winds was observed about 15 miles west of the stadium. Even when that was observed, reported, and the warnings issued well in advance of the gust front's arrival at the stadium, it still took time for the decisions to be made and to get the word to the people in the stadium. The decision was made (after some delay) to evacuate the stadium to an indoor facility a couple hundred yards away. Many were still making their way over when the storm struck. Fortunately there were no serious injuries.

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  18. Mark,

    Thanks for the comment.

    I address this "decision" issue here:http://meteorologicalmusings.blogspot.com/2011/08/fundamental-problem-at-indiana-state.html

    Mike

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  19. I agree with your comments. However, not one report on the tragedy has said anything regarding personal responsibility. I live approx 25 minutes away from the Indiana State Fairgrounds. I've lived in Indiana my whole life. The saying goes, "if you don't like the weather in Indiana, stay a day or two and it will change". I believe that to be true not only here, but everywhere. So why can't people take a bit of personal responsibility for themselves. I watched as this cloud moved in casting an ominous and dark contrast to the current weather. No radar, just observation, told me and others around me to seek shelter. I'm mystified by the people who wait on others to tell them what to do and when to do it. This isn't rocket science here folks. I've spoken to many who were in fact at the concert and had already taken shelter or where in the process of doing so when the stage came down. I understand there is some responsibility to be shared by the organization and event coordinators. But personal responsibility, although it's downplayed in a lawsuit happy society, should be the first question. If you see inclement weather coming, seek shelter. Lastly, the weather warning siren alerting system in the greater Indianapolis has been overhauled. The sirens are not going off for anything but tornado sightings now. Severe Thunderstorm Warnings are not in anyway sent for broadcast but through local media. The people of Indianapolis and Marion county asked for these changes because they wouldn't take the time to learn what the different siren patterns meant and were annoyed by them. Hindsight is 20/20... perhaps we should revisit the idea of using our warning system for it's intended purpose and not just confirmed tornado sightings.

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  20. @4:05pm August 17: I'm actually delighted to hear the Indy sirens are now sounded for tornado warnings only; that will help prevent another Joplin where 160 people died. The people in Joplin, because they could not see the tornado in the west (it was "rain-wrapped"), thought the sirens meant a mere severe thunderstorm warning because the sirens were sounded there for both severe thunderstorm and tornado warnings.

    For more, do a Google search of this blog and "siren activation."

    While I am a strong advocate for personal responsibility, I give the crowd a bit of a pass on this one since the weather was coming in from behind and to the left of the grandstands and since darkness was falling. Even as a trained meteorologist who has keenly watched weather for 50 years, it is sometimes difficult to make out a dangerous cloud behind a sunset.

    Also, where would the crowd have gone without direction? In other words, I don't see a sign in the video telling them where the shelter was. So, if they didn't know where to go it is (at least in my view) unreasonable to expect them to move.

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