A severe, but not uncommon, line of thunderstorms swept into Indianapolis Saturday evening, toppling a large stage at the Indiana State Fair, killing five and injuring dozens. Watching the video footage is horrifying. The tragedy raises all sorts of questions: Was there adequate notice? Was the notice received and acted upon? Was the incident preventable?
Let’s take a brief walk through these...
Was there adequate notice?
The stage collapsed at 8:49 p.m. Meteorologist Rob White of Original Weather Blog documents the following:
* The Indianapolis National Weather Service (NWS) issued a Severe Thunderstorm Warning at 8:39 p.m. for damaging winds in excess of 60 mph in the region that included the Indiana State Fairgrounds until 9:45 p.m.
* At 8:58 p.m., the NWS issued a follow-up statement, noting that thunderstorms producing destructive winds in excess of 70 mph would be near Indiana State Fairgrounds at 9:20 p.m.
White finds: “...the lack of a call to action for the Fairgrounds in the original warning and the way-off time of arrival estimate given for the Fairgrounds in the next update were horrible...”
In fairness to the NWS, it provided at least 10 minutes of lead time despite those shortcomings. And as White concedes “...the NWS is not mandated to give site-specific warnings for individual commercial events or entities (Fairs included).”
Indeed - NWS offices have huge areas to forecast for and can not necessarily be relied upon for highly specific forecasting needs.
Was the notice received and acted upon?
It appears officials received the warning but the information contained within the follow-up warning statement misled and/or confused them. As a result, the appropriate actions were not taken or taken fast enough. Fox News wrote (h/t Mike Smith):
.... 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.
In addition, the Indianapolis Star reported there was a disconnect between the police official monitoring the weather and the public address announcer who might have ordered an evacuation:
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.
Uncoordinated action (or inaction) based on imperfect information is not a recipe for successful emergency mitigation.
Was the incident preventable?
Mike Smith, Accuweather executive and author of Warnings, suggests if officials had hired a professional private sector meteorologist (rather than relying on National Weather Service warnings and a non-specialist on his smart-phone), they would have been armed with better information.
“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”
“I do know the science and technology exist to provide advance warning in order to evacuate people when severe thunderstorms present themselves”
Hiring private sector meteorologists to assist with event forecasting relies on them being skilled and making the right prediction. That’s not a guarantee. But I agree with Smith that having dedicated professionals communicating with officials beats the alternative.
Of course, it’s critical, even if given perfect information, for effective delivery of that information to those at risk. Officials need to have a well-laid out plan for expeditious dissemination of consistent information. That didn’t happen in Indiana, although more lead time might have helped make that possible.
Whereas evacuation efforts failed, the question of whether the stage structure should have been sounder has also arisen in the inevitable second guessing in the wake of this tragedy. In an excellent analysis of the integrity of the stage and the winds that took it down, meteorologist and blogger Jim La Due concludes the stage was “a ‘house of cards’, in other words, a flimsy metal scaffolding frame supporting a huge area of fabric facing the wind”. He elaborates:
“Certainly it appears this stage couldn’t withstand winds any more than 45 kts (55 mph) and it’s likely the stages that failed this year in Tulsa, OK Ottawa, ON, and last year in El Reno, OK also were similarly weak.”
The question then arises, should codes/regulations be instituted to require sounder structures at outdoor public events. American Meteorological Society Policy Program director Bill Hooke doesn’t think that’s practical. Instead, he puts emphasis on a better risk communication:
Fabrication costs of sturdier facilities might be prohibitive. It might take much longer to erect such stronger structures. And such tragedies , though not flukes, are unlikely. The live shows are brief in duration, and highly localized. So are the weather extremes. Thus for any given performance, such a catastrophic concurrence of storm and show should be rare. However, given the thousands of such events that occur across the country every year, a disaster somewhere each year is almost inevitable.
Given that outdoor sporting events, live music, and other performances confer such great societal benefit, we don’t want to give them up. That leaves searching for mitigation measures in the social science of communicating risk and warning.
I’ve heard similar refrains after virtually every weather disaster or near-disaster (remember Andrew Freedman’s series about airplanes on the runway full of passengers during the St. Louis tornado?). The good news is that there is a whole movement in meteorological and social sciences to improves the “mitigation” measures Hooke refers to - by briding the gap between science and response. There is no time to waste given the recent blitz of extreme weather.