Circus tent tragedy was preventable — NWS had issued a warning

A father and his daughter died when a circus tent collapsed during a severe thunderstorm in New Hampshire. Aug. 3, 2015
A father and his daughter died when a circus tent collapsed during a severe thunderstorm in New Hampshire. (Sebastian Fuentes photo)

It appears that a severe thunderstorm tragically killed a father and his daughter yesterday, while they were inside a circus tent at a Lancaster, N.H. fairground.

The New Hampshire Union Leader reported that the tent collapsed at approximately 5:46 p.m. EDT. The collapse injured an additional 15 people, according to the newspaper.

This reminds me of another time that a severe thunderstorm killed people at an outdoor event: The 2011 Indiana State Fair.

Both tragedies could have been prevented. If the people at the circus had been aware of and heeded a severe thunderstorm warning that the local National Weather Service issued at 5:23 p.m., they would have had more than 20 minutes to seek shelter before the tent collapsed.

The yellow polygon shows the area of New Hampshire for which the National Weather Service issued a severe thunderstorm warning before the circus tent collapsed.
The yellow polygon shows the New Hampshire area for which the National Weather Service issued a severe thunderstorm warning before the circus tent collapsed. Click the image for a larger version.

Typically, a storm that warrants a severe thunderstorm warning has straight-line winds or gusts of 58 mph or stronger.  A big tent is the last place I’d want to be when winds of that speed hit.

We don’t know yet whether anyone at the circus knew about the warning. Severe thunderstorm warnings don’t trigger Wireless Emergency Alerts on smartphones the way tornado warnings do. Likewise, most localities don’t activate outdoor warning sirens for severe thunderstorm warnings.

Weather alert radios – which are available for as little as $30 – certainly sounded off when the National Weather Service issued the warning for Lancaster.  Very few people, however, carry portable weather alert radios with them to a circus.

Still, the entire audience could have known about the coming storm and taken shelter in fairgrounds buildings, or at least in their cars, had a circus staff member had been monitoring a weather radio and had the circus implemented an emergency weather plan.

Every organization that stages any kind of outdoor event has a responsibility to its participants, spectators, etc. to know about and respond appropriately to all weather warnings.

That includes circuses, state and county fairs, sports stadiums, etc.

In New Hampshire, the following chain of events would very likely have prevented all the injuries and deaths:

  1. Circus staff members program a weather alert radio for the county in which the circus is located.
  2. A circus staff member (e.g. ticket office staff) remains within earshot of the weather radio.
  3. Upon hearing the severe thunderstorm warning, a circus staff member alerts a member of management.
  4. Circus management makes an announcement over the circus public address system, in which they ask all patrons to seek shelter and provide advice on where to do so.

Of course, awareness of a severe thunderstorm warning is only part of the solution. People must also understand how dangerous a severe thunderstorm is, so they take shelter just as they would during a tornado warning. But that’s a topic for a different blog post.

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