Indiana’s most recent weather tragedy

Chances are good that by now you know what happened last night in Indianapolis. According to news reports, a wind gust somewhere in the range of 60-70 miles per hour toppled a stage at the Indiana State Fair where the country group Sugarland was scheduled to perform. Five were killed and dozens were injured. For background, pictures, and a video from the Washington Post web site, click here.

It’s sad to see an occasion that could have brought so much joy and pleasure to so many end in this way. Too many lives have been cut short and too many others have been changed forever. We owe it to those who suffered such loss to ask what might be done to reduce such tragedies in the future.

Though Indiana’s governor referred to the high winds and the stage collapse as a fluke, the fact is that there undoubtedly will be repetitions of this heartbreak.  The Washington Post coverage cited similar events in Indiana’s history over recent years. Increasingly, meteorologists are thinking more about the dangers at such venues. [Interested? Check out this article by Joel Gratz and Erik Noble on the lightning hazard and sports stadiums, published in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society. Lightning was a particular concern during the 1996 Summer Olympics, which were held in Atlanta. Fortunately, no harm occurred.]

My friend Mike Smith, in his blog, Meteorological Musings, has already suggested that a gust front, clearly evident on radar and well-warned by his company AccuWeather to its clients, was the cause. Citing several similar weather-related incidents of this type in recent months, Mike suggested that it was time for those putting on outdoor events to reexamine their safety precautions.

As Mike pointed out, it may be impractical to design temporary stages and stands that can withstand such high wind speeds. He’s most likely right. 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.

Perhaps, therefore event organizers could be more disciplined with respect to their warning and evacuation procedures. Organizers and local authorities could work toward better risk communication at such venues and better planning for evacuating and/or dispersing large crowds.

One suggestion that we’ve brought up in this blog several times might be useful here; an analog to the National Transportation Safety Board – a standing federal agency, as opposed to an ad-hoc group – for studying the causes of such calamities and recommending measures to reduce risk. Over time, such a group would very likely suggest a range of measures to improve communication that last mile – from governmental and private weather service providers to audiences in such venues.

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3 Responses to Indiana’s most recent weather tragedy

  1. Eddy Weiss says:

    Dr.,
    I am glad you jumped on this and hope you address it further. For years we have been asked by smaller fairs, festivals and special events to bring our storm chase vehicles and equipment to these events to monitor weather in order to recommend action. Sometimes, the recommendations have been heeded; other times, completely ignored with quite negative results.
    It still amazes me that a flight can be grounded due to risk of mechanical failure or damage during a blizzard, but the warnings put forth by NWS during a massive outdoor event are still looked at as if they were “suggestions”.
    A severe weather warning is not an ingredient you “add to taste” as you create your day. last night, as we sat in our tracking center, it was heart-breaking to think of the crowds at the fairgrounds and the danger they were in.
    I encourage you to use your leadership and strength to pursue this. You have the ears of many and I know that we will follow and support any attempt to see change in policies, protocols and even laws regarding situations like the one that faced this fair.

    • William Hooke says:

      Many thanks, Eddy, for your thoughtful comment. Well-expressed, but even more importantly, well-grounded from your experience in the trenches on this one. All the best.

  2. Pingback: Indiana Stage Collapse: was it preventable? Slow Motion Video « GJONETO

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