Back on April 23, I blogged on the tornado damage suffered at Lambert-St. Louis International Airport.
I wasn’t alone! The story was big in the traditional news media and the blogosphere, and rightfully so. Weeks, later, some bloggers continue to analyze this event, and its implications…most notably, and thoughtfully, Andrew Freedman of the Capital Weather Gang (find his post here) and Mike Smith at Meteorological Musings (find his post here).
Both made excellent points at last week’s end. Freedman highlights the lack of warning available to those in the terminal building, and provides a chilling link to some unedited video footage of part of the terminal as the tornado passed through. He notes that passengers on some incoming flights weren’t allowed to disembark because of safety concerns. Lightning in the area triggered a halt to ground-crew operations. They had to ride out the tornado in their airplanes. Freedman’s report makes interesting reading because it gives a feel for how difficult it is for those in harm’s way to process warnings, choose a course of action, and then take cover. There’s a lot of confusion! And there were also a lot of people on the concourses who were in the dark about the approaching hazard. Depending on who you were and where you were at the airport, you were operating on a substantially different situational awareness.
Smith, a veteran private-sector meteorologist, notes Freedman’s reporting but focuses more on the disconnect between FAA sources of weather information (which focus on the aircraft in-flight operations) and those available to the general public. The video clip on his post makes reference to a tornado that hit the Daytona, FL airport on Christmas of 2006. He argues that FAA and air traffic controllers should have access to the public warnings as well as the specialized aviation weather services provided through NOAA and the National Weather Service. There’s much more here! Check it out.
[Of course airports face other weather hazards as well. Homestead Air Force Base and Tamiami airport were clobbered during Hurricane Andrew in 1992. And aircraft and the Dallas-Fort Worth Airport suffered a billion dollars of hail damage on May 6, 1995. Search the web, and you can find additional examples. And that’s before we get to winter storms.]
These events, and the analyses by Smith, Freedman, and others remind us once again of a great disconnect in U.S. policy with respect to natural hazards. Hazards to transportation, and the accidents and near-misses attributed to them, are studied extensively, and in a formal way, following well-established protocols by the National Transportation Safety Board. The NTSB does not regulate. It only reports findings and makes recommendations. Nevertheless, based on NTSB reports, the FAA, the airlines, the airframe manufacturers, pilots, mechanics, and many other groups tighten their quality control on every aspect of commercial and general aviation, making air travel one of the safest modes of transportation per passenger mile. In this arena, we learn from experience.
By contrast, making those air terminals, and all sorts of human activity within and around those terminals safer, is much more ad hoc. No standard procedure exists. As a result, improvement in safety of air terminal buildings and the people in them is more hit or miss.
This is a special case of a more general challenge facing the United States. Apart from transportation, when it comes to natural hazards, we don’t learn from experience. Instead we tend to rebuild as before. This condemns us to future repetitions of previous disasters. That is why my colleague Gina Eosco and I have recommended establishment of a National Disaster Review Board, to review causes and contributing factors responsible for so-called natural disasters.
Such an NDRB would look beyond emergency response to include land use, building codes and other engineering factors, and social contributors to disasters as well. It would help make those of us in the flying public as safe on the ground as we are in the air.
 Eosco, G.M., and W.H. Hooke, Coping with hurricanes, Bull. Am. Meteor. Soc. 87, pp 751-753, 2006.