Sunday, August 14, 2011

Magnifying a tragedy

A terrible tragedy caused by a severe storm has occurred at the Indiana State Fair. You can watch a horrifying video of the event here, and read my colleague's commentary. I agree completely with him that these disasters are preventable, and some of us have been predicting these 'large venue' weather-related events for decades. Anyone familiar with the history of severe weather must come to the conclusion that it's inevitable that a really bad storm will intersect with a large venue event and create a truly large, devastating tragedy. This and several other similar recent events associated with concert stage collapses are just the warm-ups, unfortunately. One day, a significant tornado will hit a crowded 'large venue' - it's just a matter of time and the clock continues to tick. There have been some notable near misses and it's simply inevitable, even though no one (besides a handful of us) seems to care.

What magnifies this Indiana State Fair tragedy is that, like recent similar events, no one will learn anything from it! The whole mess will be papered over as an unfortunate "Act of God" - since god can't be sued and apparently won't be testifying in his own defense, there will be no assignment of responsibility for these deaths and injuries. The promoters will collect their insurance money for the damages and won't be called to account for any failures in preparation for a severe storm. Almost certainly, the venue operator had no plan in place to respond to a threatening storm and the people attending the event were not made aware of any actions they could have taken to protect themselves. If the promoters had a plan in place, and people were killed by a storm anyway, then they could be sued for having an inadequate plan! It's actually better and less risky for the promoters in our twisted, litigation-obsessed society to have no plan at all, and write it off as god's mysterious ways than it is to have a plan that may still result in casualties.

The losers, naturally, are the people affected by these tragedies - the people who pay for the tickets to attend the event, who buy the hot dogs and beer at inflated prices, and who suffer the consequences for the absence of preparation by greedy promoters and venue operators. The families and friends of the casualties also have to deal with the loss of their friends and/or loved ones. The economic and human cost of these events is never known fully.

Stage sets have no construction codes (UPDATE: see comments) - they're not designed to resist the wind and so are always vulnerable to collapse even in a relatively modest storm gust - perhaps even less than that 58 mph that qualifies it as "officially" severe. Venue operators are not required to make any preparations to respond in the case of an approaching severe storm. The show must go on - after all, profits are at stake! - no matter what might actually be looming on the weather horizon. These large venues often don't have anywhere for the crowds to go in the event of an approaching severe storm - no shelters. All they can do is cancel the event and evacuate. Just imagine thousands of people rushing to their cars in a panic, and then creating instant gridlock in the parking area as a tornado bears down on them. It's a terrifying thought to entertain but the worst part is that it's a very distinct possibility someday! You just can't evacuate thousands of people in the relatively few minutes warning you may have before a severe storm hits. The time to cancel the event is always well before the storm hits - and no forecaster can guarantee that a storm actually will hit the facility very far in advance, which is what venue operators likely will demand if they're going to risk losing money by canceling the event before the storm is riding up their backsides!

This is a no-win situation for everyone, it seems, except the venue operators. They call it an "Act of God" and walk away with some damage they have to spend their insurance money to repair. Just how much do we in American society value human life? Pious claims about that notwithstanding, it seems to me that all one needs to do is review the budget for the Indiana State Fair concert that wound up with five fatalities (Update:  now it is seven!) and you can see pretty clearly how much each life was worth to them!

And we all bear some responsibility for this. Most people will just shake their heads in sadness and vow to pray for the unfortunate victims and their families - apparently to the same god on whom they blamed the disaster in the first place! No grass-roots movement to demand safety standards with real substance for large-event venue operators is likely to arise. Why? Perhaps it's widespread apathy. Perhaps it's an inability to consider that the next tragedy could happen to us, not someone else. Perhaps it's the political clout of large-event venue operators to fight successfully against any mandatory preparations for severe storms.

I'm not a weather forecaster by trade, but I can make a prediction here about which I'm pretty confident: the important lessons from the Indiana State Fair disaster won't be learned, no one will be held accountable for those deaths, and things will roll along to the next severe weather-related disaster at a large venue. Maybe if the next one is a really big disaster, someone might actually be moved to do something substantial to prevent more of them. But I'm not optimistic, even then. After all, there are those profits to be made ...


jimmyc said...

I guess my question is: How do we frame the problem such that the venue will have specific, actionable advice? Should they build shelters to withstand high wind and hail, tornadoes up to ef2? Will adding permanent structures to the facilities change the designation of the land use from fair grounds to something else? These arent meant to "the" questions to ask, but it is certainly the type of question we have to ask of them. And the venue will certainly have weather questions more than likely requiring frequency of occurrence and thus an overall risk assessment. I don't know how much use each venue gets besides from 2 week long state fairs. But if they aren't willing to build to protect, then they should be all about canceling to protect.
(As with all things in our society today, it appears we have few bridge builders between communities and more people talking at each other. I don't have the solution to how to get these groups of folks talking to the weather community, but if all politics are local, as a community we should reach out to our local venues and lend them a hand.)

Chuck Doswell said...

Some good questions, here. It makes sense that outreach to do something should start in your local area. But in my experience, it's tough to get folks to agree (a) there's a problem, (b) we need to do something about it, and (c) what that 'something' should be. But if we don't at least TRY to do something, you can be pretty sure that nothing will change.

Chuck Doswell said...

A reminder, folks ... anonymous comments will be rejected. All comments must include the first and last name of the person making the comment!

John Huntington said...

"Stage sets have no construction codes". Actually, the Professional Lighting and Sound Association (formerly ESTA) has a standard specifically covering the design, engineering and operation of these kinds of temporary stages. Unfortunately, you have to purchase it to read it (the money goes to support the standards efforts). ANSI E1.21 - 2006, "Temporary Ground-Supported Overhead Structures Used To Cover Stage Areas and Support Equipment in the Production of Outdoor Entertainment Events" I have the purchase link to it on my blog at

I work on other standards within PLASA, and hadn't read this one, but I bought it and did take a skim through it tonight. The sort of recommended (it's in an informative appendix) minimum wind speed these kind of structures must be able to take is 40MPH. More importantly, the stage and the wind speed is supposed to be monitored continuously, and operators are supposed to specifically have an "Operations Management Plan" that addresses exactly the kind of thing that you are talking about. Will more people adopt this standard? That, I wouldn't try to predict.

Keep up the great work!

John Huntington said...

Oh and just to be clear, I meant that "keep up the good work" comment. I realized after posting that it might come off snarky, but I didn't intend it that way--I subscribe to your blog feed and always enjoy reading it, even when I don't agree with you :-)


Chuck Doswell said...


I didn't take it as snarky, so - no problem! Thanks for the info. But 40 mph is a pretty low level of standard, and you seem to be saying that adherence to the standard is voluntary.

Chuck Doswell said...

Update: The Indianapolis Star has posted a story about a positive example at nearby Conner Prairie that same evening. The venue operator at Conner Prairie reacted very differently from the one at the state fair, using basically similar information about the oncoming storm. The result? No disaster there.

John Huntington said...

Yep, it's an official ANSI standard, but, in code speak, the "Authority Having Jurisdiction" would have to adopt it to make it law. The National Electric Code works in a similar way--it's developed by the industry as a "model code" and then the AHJ typically adopts it as law.

The 40MPH is sort of a recommended minimum, but they talk in the standard about much higher loads. Here's a link to a commentary from a Professional Engineer colleague of mine about the situation:

Engineers in our industry certainly know how to make a stage that can stand up to whatever wind loads are required, but I guess it's up to governments to establish the bar.

But every structure has a failure point, and so to me, in the end, though, this tragedy was likely a procedural failure, as you point out in your reference to the other concert that was cancelled that night based on the same information about the same storm.


===== Roger Edwards ===== said...

The "Act of God" rationale is not meant to be religious in this context, whatever its origin. Instead it is a generic, convenient and longstanding rationalization for avoiding responsibility.

It's also doomed to failure.

Strictly in a legal-liability framework, the "Act of God" defense (or the synonymous "unpredictable fluke" as it also has been called) is invalidated by the fact that the threat of severe weather is *predictable*. This idea is not new to me; and I am not playing lawyer. Instead, do you know who first told me this? An attorney for a huge metro-area speedway, right after a large-venue presentation I gave eight years ago in Independence MO.

Predictability only has improved since. The existence of a 30% damaging-wind outlook ~12 hours out, severe thunderstorm watch ~3 hours out, local hazardous weather outlook and severe thunderstorm warning before the event, all illustrate that the *threat* for damaging convective wind was known well in advance in this instance. And it's that sort of predictability that will demolish an "Act of God" (or synonymous) argument. I don't think that line of reasoning stands a snowball's chance in hell of standing up in any large-venue disaster anymore (speaking in general, not just about this event)--especially under the sort of scrutiny that sharp and bloodthirsty plaintiffs' lawyers are sure to give it. This, too, is largely parroting what that speedway lawyer told me eight years ago. I am inclined to believe her, considering she would be the one having to defend that speedway against such legal attack if an analogous event happened there.

I've heard some deliberation over timing of storm arrival stated in the warning. That's irrelevant. The time to execute a well-developed plan of action for ~12K spectators is before the onset of a warning; and cops shouldn't be the ones monitoring I-Phone radar to make such decisions. Whenever LEOs are playing meteorologist, that's abundant evidence, by itself, of a poorly conceived "plan".

Kierra Hall said...

I know this post is old but this has happened in Indianapolis before with a large event being effected by severe weather. May 2004 on Race Day, the SPC put us under a high risk. There were thousands of ppl at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and others at the Pacer's game at Concesco Field House at the time when a tornado warning was issued for the city. Ppl were panicking trying to get to their cars and traffic was backed up. Luckily, the tornado took a different course but that could have been a serious disaster. And fast forward to today, we haven't learned our lesson it seems. I just thought I would share :)

Kierra Hall