Over the next few weeks of summer right through fall, outdoor festivals continue throughout the country. It is an exciting time of year, for many families, as summer festivals transition to harvest and fall festivals. State Fairs across the south and west continue with incredible rides and exhibits along with pumpkin picking and hay rides at local farms and county festivals. And oh yeah, they usually provide some great food, too. These festivals and fairs spend time and capital on attracting customers.
One area that some festivals seem to limit planning: weather hazard planning. What is the number one factor in having a great festival? Weather. If it is 75 to 85 degrees and sunny every day, chances are attendance is very high, possibly record setting, for the festival or fair. Not surprisingly, cloudy, rainy and 50 degrees can ruin attendance. So, why is it that most festivals move ahead with a weather plan that amounts to crossing their fingers? I would like to believe it is because they are not aware of better options.
Outdoor fairs and festivals will always be susceptible to weather. However, with education and awareness, the impact can be reduced through proper planning. The modern cell phone has given insight to how frequently weather can disrupt our lives. It can ruin a nice Day at the Beach in Russia. Or it can postpone the afternoon cookout. These first two examples are scary but nobody is hurt. What a relief, right? Most people reacted correctly in seeking shelter and those that didn’t were lucky, at least as far as can be seen from the lens. However, luck is not a strategy.
Many of you remember this video from the Indiana State Fair. This tragedy occurred at 8:46pm on August 13th, 2011. Thousands of people were waiting for the band Sugarland to come out and perform. Seven people died and fifty eight were injured by strong winds that knocked over the stage. Everyone there was exposed to the estimated 70 mph winds. You can find the satellite image of the damaged stage on the state fair grounds using Google Maps:
This was an avoidable disaster. It did not have to happen. It came out in independent review and in court that the Indiana State Fair Commission was unprepared for such an event. There was no clear authority on who could make the call regarding weather. The National Weather Service and Storm Prediction Center published outlooks for severe weather throughout the day, starting very early in the morning. The entire state of Indiana was under a Low Risk of severe weather on August 13th, 2011. A large part of central and northwestern Indiana had a 30% chance of winds in excess of 50 knots in the outlooks.
At 12:15pm, central time, a Severe Thunderstorm Watch was issued for all of northern Indiana. The watch details that 70 mph winds are possible and more likely later in the day. The damaging wind threat is moderate in the issuance: First Severe Thunderstorm Watch.
By 6pm eastern, a second Severe Thunderstorm Watch was issued for central Indiana. Damaging winds of 70 mph are again referenced in the watch: Severe Thunderstorm Watch for Fair Grounds/central Indiana. This was almost 3 hours before the tragedy with dozens of reports of wind damage and strong winds already in northern Indiana from the storms headed towards Indianapolis. Eventually, 190 wind reports came in that day from thunderstorms across the country with a high concentration in Kentucky, Michigan and Indiana.
At 8:39pm eastern, a Severe Thunderstorm Warning was issued by the National Weather Service for Marion County, including the Indiana State Fair Grounds for quarter size hail and winds in excess of 60 mph. That gave State Fair officials a precious seven minute lead time that was not used for evacuating people away from the stage and the very exposed concert area.
We are finding that forecasts are getting better and better. This was a well forecast event. The information was there. The tragedy resulted in not having an effective, comprehensive and practiced weather hazard plan. To prevent future weather tragedies, a more clear architecture encompassing understanding, planning and training has to be in place before a damaging weather event.
A more recent example occurred on Sunday, August 2nd, 2015 outside of Chicago, Illinois. Wood Dale, Illinois, in DuPage County, was hosting Prairie Days. Sunday was the last day of the four day event. Isolated thunderstorms developed in the afternoon. At 2:21pm, a Severe Thunderstorm Warning was issued by the National Weather Service for portions of DuPage county, including Wood Dale. Between 2:35pm and 2:40pm, winds estimated at 60 mph came through the festival and collapsed a tent. A 35 year old father of two died. WMAQ in Chicago reported on the tragedy: Wood Dale Prairie Fest. Unfortunately, seeking shelter under a tent in a severe thunderstorm is not a good option. Fourteen to nineteen minutes were not put to good use to protect people at Prairie Fest.
These are two examples – one large event and one much smaller. In both cases, steps were not taken to identify weather risks and plans of action. The first part of a weather plan is to identify weather threats through research. The second step inspects infrastructure and the amount of people on property. Many questions need to be asked. Can existing infrastructure shelter the amount of people on site? Is evacuation the best choice? How is weather monitored? How are threats communicated? Is there a command post and structure? How strong is the communications plan? Are there redundancies? Is the plan of action realistic? Has it been tested? Are local police and fire familiar with the weather hazard plan?
These are just some of the questions that begin the process to develop a weather hazard plan. Being prepared, can make a big difference. It can change the memories and headlines of an event from tragic to supportive. Every outdoor event, regardless of size, should have a weather hazard plan. And crossing your fingers, is not a sound strategy. Festival attendees will appreciate the extra steps taken to ensure that their experience is as safe as possible. Local communities and first responders will also appreciate the extra steps. Feel free to email me with any questions.