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 ...