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Video blog: Preventing event weather injuries & deaths

Note: Links to resources appear at the bottom of this page.

In 2011, straight-line winds of a severe thunderstorm blew down the temporary, steel roof over a concert stage at the Indiana State Fair. Seven people died. Four years later, two people died in New Hampshire, after thunderstorm winds blew down a circus tent.

The fact that people were still dying in weather-related incidents at public events four years after the State Fair tragedy prompted me to produce my first video blog, above.

At least two and a half hours before both the Indianapolis and New Hampshire storms, the National Weather Service issued severe thunderstorm watches. The agency issued specific warnings at least 10 minutes before each storm.

According to a report by the Indianapolis Star, no one advised the State Fair audience to seek shelter before the stage structure collapsed. At the time this story was produced, it was unclear from news reports whether circus employees even knew about the New Hampshire storm warning, or whether they instructed their audience to seek shelter.

Tragedies like these show how important it is for organizers of outdoor events to have effective plans, policies and procedures for severe weather.

“Every plan should have something in there that says, ‘We get information from one location, we’re able to process that in a timely manner, and move people,'” said Michael Lewis, warning coordination meteorologist at the northern Indiana office of the National Weather Service.

“So when we work with them, we try to give them redundant sources of information,” Lewis continued. “Use our website. Use the different applications that are available on smartphones. Use NOAA weather radio, get the information and act quickly. The plan should look at how long will it take to you to move people from where they generally congregate to places of shelter, places of safety. Where are the gonna go and how long is it going to take to get there.”

In Fort Wayne, Indiana, the minor-league TinCaps baseball team routinely draws crowds of eight thousand or more.

“We do have a severe weather plan, very detailed,” said Brian Schackow, chief financial officer, Fort Wayne Tincaps. “And I think the best way to describe it is it just outlines the way we’re gonna communicate with people in the event of severe weather.”

“We have slides, we have weather announcements that our PA announcer will make, and it outlines how to handle that. Everything from just being in a thunderstorm warning — or a watch, I should say — all the way up to a tornado warning, which is the case right now where we would evacuate the ballpark,” Schackow continued.

A number of resources are available to event and venue professionals. For example, a trade organization called The Event Safety Alliance hosted a Severe Weather Summit in March of 2016. There, experts discussed all types of weather issues and how to develop plans.

Other resources include local emergency managers and public safety officials as well as local National Weather Service offices.

Event organizers and venue owners can help prevent future injuries and deaths by using such resources to adequately prepare for dangerous weather.

Some resources

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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