Friday, April 4, 2014

Can We Prevent the Coming Tornado Disaster?

Recently, a photo taken from a AA baseball game shows a storm that is pretty close to the field and the players are still out on the grass in the open:

Some might think that's a tornado, but it's not ... it's an example of a so-called "shelf cloud" associated with storm outflow winds.  The primary danger to the players and fans in this photo isn't from a tornado but from strong winds and lightning.  A proper venue plan to mitigate those dangers would involve input from a meteorologist to provide a warning with enough lead time to protect the players and fans.  Such a warning could not offer absolute certainty, of course, and the venue operator may not wish to shut down the game, thereby losing profits, unless it's virtually certain that such action is needed.  Hence, the reason players are still on the field may be this profit-driven reluctance.

Note:  in baseball, I think it's the formal responsibility of the umpires to delay or call the game for safety reasons.  The referee has that authority in football.  Nevertheless, the venue operator no doubt bears some responsibility here.  There has been some improvement in sports venues to reduce the lightning threat, but this photo seems to suggest there's still a ways to go. 

Many of us meteorologists are concerned about the potential disastrous impact of storms on large venue activities:  ball games, amusement parks, concerts, and so on.  It's inevitable that a really bad storm will hit one of these events and cause mass casualties.  There are numerous examples of near-misses by significant tornadoes, for instance.  There's no reason to believe that good fortune will continue forever.  Rather, it's inevitable that a large venue event will be hit by a strong tornado.  It's frightening even to contemplate such a disaster.  Despite the efforts by some of us to heighten the awareness of this danger, the response has been less than overwhelming, as this image suggests.  What are the reasons for this reluctance to act on the potential for a disaster?

I've already mentioned the profit motive.  Cancelling an event hurts profits, and after all, the primary reason for an event is to make money.  It's my understanding that if such a catastrophe could reasonably be anticipated, it's the legal responsibility of the venue operator to have a mitigation plan and implement it.  Can this reasonably be anticipated?  I think I just did and I like to believe I'm being reasonable!

Venue operators must weigh the loss of profits against the potential losses through legal action after a disaster occurred for which the venue was unprepared.  I detect a bias in their responses toward ignoring the threat of those lawsuits in preference to those short-term profits.  And providing some sort of storm shelter for patrons could be expensive and remain unused for a long time.  For some events, it's hard to imagine any practical way to provide shelter for everyone.

In my experience, most people (not just venue operators) have no wish to learn about the real risks that confront them.  There's a lot of good information produced by the National Weather Service (and other sources, like FEMA) that's specifically intended to inform non-meteorologists about the threat from thunderstorms and severe weather.  Thus, the information is available.  Why might people not wish to learn about risks to their lives and well-being, thereby being prepared to take appropriate action?  I'm not a social scientist, and we have much to learn about human behavior, but I can speculate.  For one thing, many people have experienced storms and survived without harm.  A common phrase heard after the impact of a really bad storm is "I've never seen anything like that!"  People tend to assume their experience is much more representative of reality than it actually is.  If, in their lifetime, they've never been hit by a tornado, then without thinking about it, they can fall into the "normality" bias ... it's normal not to be hit by a tornado, so it's easy to assume that will continue forever!  People choose to accept myths as truth because they want those myths to be truth.

Rare events are inherently dangerous, because that rarity fosters complacency.  Why take the time and resources ($$) to prepare when you most likely will never have need for such preparations?  Never mind that someone experiences such an event virtually every year.  "It's not possible for that to happen to me!  It only happens to others!"  And commonly, after someone is hit, they say "My sense of security has been destroyed"  That sense of security was an illusion, not reality.

Someday, and I can't tell where or when, a 'perfect storm' of factors will result in a bad storm hitting a large event venue and mass casualties will result.  Then, the lawsuits will fly, and fingers of blame will be pointed.  We could reduce the chances that it will be a disaster by proper mitigation plans and measures.  Can a coming disaster be averted with mitigation plans and preparation?  Yes, of course!  The question is, however, will that disaster be so averted?  The jury is still out ... sad to say, it may take a disaster to cause much movement toward mitigating the potential for more disasters.  We humans tend to learn lessons the hard way.


Pam Knox said...

Over 100 years ago, a strong tornado caused 117 deaths and 150 injuries at New Richmond, WI, as a circus brought crowds of extra people to town on a hot June day (6/12/1899). You can read more about it here:
Of course, this was long before the NWS started putting out severe storm warnings and also long before modern forms of communications made getting watches and warnings easier. But any large outdoor gathering like a state farm, sporting event, or outdoor concert has the potential to experience significant injuries and deaths if there is no plan to get out the warnings and evacuate the crowds in a timely way. In New Richmond, some speculate that the death rate would have been even higher if the funnel had been less visible, for example if wrapped in rain. The next time we might not be so lucky.

George Hrabovsky said...

I remember seeing video of a severe thunderstorm in New Orleans (?), where a group of fans were run over by wind-driven dumpsters—at least one ended up in the hospital.

Anonymous said...

Yet another relevant & interesting blog Chuck!

IMHO, I think the issue of insecurity you spoke of is indeed crucial to understanding why people are in such denial.

I like to frame it as a person's intense need to feel that they are in-control of their environment. Two common examples of this are at the root of fear of flying, and 'backseat driving'.

I would suggest that impressive advances in technology have only worsened the issue, as our species has been steadily improving its ability to manipulate nature or mitigate the effects of mother nature or prevent the threat of certain dangers. The majority of Europeans & North Americans now are fortunate, because they can live out their lives in a carefully controlled urban setting, usually in a home they chose, in a neighbourhood they selected, and sometime even send their children to a school they chose. Just about everything in our day-to-day lives involves situations we can choose or control.

Now contrast that with the realities one or two hundred years ago. People were exposed to far more dangers than were out of their control (commonly encountered diseases and epidemics) or unable to deal with resulting in great suffering (drought, crop disease, forest fires, etc.). Natural distasters caused much more heartache & disruption to entire communities, plus if recovery was possible, it could take years & years.

The consequences of living in Europe or North America a hundred or more years ago include exposure to some very serious dangers out of everyone's control from the moment of birth (child mortality rates were much higher) and this reality remained omnipresent throughout one's life.

So how did people cope with a less certain environment? Well denail was not possible because struggling to survive was a daily occurance. Instead, a good portion of society never developed unrealistic expectations, viewed themselves as intimately connected with nature (warts and all), and leaned on a philosophy or religious paradigms that everyone else believed. Just as important was that people leaned on each other in their communities, recognizing that a tightly- knit collective was in a better position to cope with a scary & unpredictable world.

Clearly, for most western cultures, none of the strategies described in the previous paragraph are remotely as prevalent..perhaps the closest analogue would be the tightly knit Amish &;Menonite communities that flourish in rural North America. Instead, 'we' are all raised to be as self-sufficient as possible, make decisions on our own, and define ourselves by our individual possessions & the success we've attained ourselves (and give ourselves all the credit). Furthermore, the residents of communities do not share anything that bonds them together, whether it is a practical & concrete common need, or an overarching philosophy or belief system that transcends the rewards in life that are temporary and easily lost througgh any number of unfortunate circumstances. Ultimately, we just don't 'do life' in a way that encourages us to have an honest sense of the fragile nature of our lives, nor do we have a lifestyle that requires us to face our own mortality and accept that we are intimately conected to this planet, and consequently at its mercies.

It is no wonder then that a significant percentage of the population feels terribly insecure in the face of such realities, and default to a mindset of denial when those threats are discussed.

(Apologies for my copious verbage! It's probably a serious faux pas to have a response to a blog that is longer than the blog! In defense, I will say that I have been thinking out loudhere, and this blog really got me thinking!!(and not editing!).

Derek Baker

RySenkari said...

It's already happened. Not a tornado, but a mass casualty incident just from a severe thunderstorm:

BrentSTL said...

Chuck, you're right on the umpires having responsibility to stop baseball games. Specifically, the rules say the Umpire-In-Chief (the home plate umpire) has that responsibility; I think in MLB, it's the crew chief's decision. The home team has that responsibility before the lineup cards are exchanged before the game, at least in MLB. I remember a severe storm hitting Busch Stadium several years ago before a game against (I think) the Braves. It was pretty bad, but no damage to the stadium other than blown-around trash cans IIRC. I fear a major tornado or earthquake (think 89 World Series) hitting during a major event though.

Billy Williams said...

Yes, the umpire has a responsibility to stop the game, and do his best to get people out of danger if safety is threatened. While my take seems similar to Brent's, my situation is somewhat different in that I work kids' games. I have no hesitation in acting, since child safety is in my mind in another area (work in a national child abuse prevention group). I have a little pull being the senior umpire where I call games...but someone else is above me for the whole site. Fortunately, awareness of the dangers of lightning and severe weather is pretty high among people who run the show, and at these kids' games, there is no direct "money" pressure to keep going.

Chuck Doswell said...


The Indiana State Fair stage collapse, while tragic, pales in comparison to the disaster that I foresee eventually happening. So, as I see things, the big one has not happened ... yet!

Billy Williams said...

Chuck, I am guessing that your "big one" is more likeley to involve large crowd gathered in an arena or other building/structure that fails in a storm, rather than an outdoor crowd where people can see a storm coming. However, I could be wrong. Our big yearly outdoor crowd event, called "Jazzfest" is watched over like a hawk by local EM/law enforcement people in contact with us. I suppose there are crowded outdoor events in places not so well watched over. In fact, I am guessing I was at such a gathering a few times many years ago. But a failed our old one here that soon will be history...could produce oodles of flying debris among thousands of exposed people.

Lisa MacArthur said...

"It's my understanding that if such a catastrophe could reasonably be anticipated, it's the legal responsibility of the venue operator to have a mitigation plan and implement it. Can this reasonably be anticipated? I think I just did and I like to believe I'm being reasonable!"
If a venue operator has only one venue or only a few then using your own essays I can make a good case that such a catastrophe is likely to not happen during the life of that venue operator. Look at the statistics. Tornadoes are rare, violent tornadoes are super rare. What is the chance of my venue getting hit? A lot less than it not getting hit. Thus while some venue is likely to get hit as you
say, it's not likely to be "mine". Thus a good case can be made to do nothing. Since each venue owner is only concerned about their own venue. But, humans do learn the hard way, and some venue is going to get nailed very badly some day and a lot of people will die. It's just a matter of when and who the unlucky venue is. I suggest the following as a start. Venues must give a statement regarding their vulnerability to high winds, hail, lightning, torrential rain, and of course tornadoes. People must have the right to a full refund if they feel that it is not safe for them to go to an event that they previously paid for because of weather concerns. Lisa MacArthur Riverside RI.

Chuck Doswell said...


I can make a case that such a disaster is inevitable ... it will happen somewhere, sometime, as you have noted. The fact that this is a logical conclusion from the available information means it it's reasonable for venue operators to anticipate it MIGHT happen to them, but of course it's a low probability event at any specific location. I don't think that excuses venue operators from being responsible. Do YOU think they're not responsible for what could happen and therefore have no need to develop some sort of plan to mitigate it in the (unlikely) event that it happens to them? As I see it, the only issue is what sort of things should be in their plan to deal with particular events. You've offered a suggestion ... it might or might not suffice to shield them from the lawsuits that inevitably would follow after a disaster.

Lisa MacArthur said...

Do YOU think they're not responsible for what could happen and therefore have no need to develop some sort of plan to mitigate it in the (unlikely) event that it happens to them?
No, I think that they should take reasonable measures against any threat to the safety of their patrons.

In some cases or many cases I have no idea what that could possibly be.

I wonder if you have any links to any articles that you would recommend that give examples of mitigation for outdoor stadiums and other outdoor events?

I believe that large amusement parks probably have underground spaces for shelters already. Maybe there are underground exhibits that are intended to double as a shelter.

I think it's an interesting subject and would like to learn more about what could, should, and has been done.

Thanks for any info or links that you might have.

Lisa MacArthur
Riverside RI

Lisa MacArthur said...

My suggestion about refunds was offered only as a start. Something that should be easy for the politicians to do. People are ultimately responsible for their own safety. If they don't have to factor in the cost of the tickets they may be likely to err on the side of safety. It's not intended to excuse venues of their responsibilities to their patrons.
Also, if my suggestion were to become law, it may encourage venues to put mitigation plans in place as a way of cutting down on lost revenue. Who knows?

Chuck Doswell said...


I'm pretty sure you can do a web search to find such links without too much difficulty, if you truly want to learn more about the topic of weather disaster potential at large venues.

Your speculation about underground shelters at large venue events is not the case at most, if not all, such large venues.

Although I agree that people have the ultimate responsibility for their own safety, that sounds pretty idealistic, rather than realistic. And I believe the law would hold large venue owners responsible if a disaster that could reasonably have been anticipated ever occurs at a large venue event and the operators did nothing to mitigate the impact.