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August 15, 2011 / Dave Gorham

Warnings Can Only Do So Much; The Rest is Up to – Who?

I don’t want to lose sight of the fact that hundreds of people are injured and five died as a result of the stage collapse at the Indiana State Fair grounds this past Saturday evening, but the governor of Indiana is literally adding insult to injury.

“It’s not clear to me at this stage how anyone could have foreseen a sudden, highly localized gust of wind in one place,” Gov. Mitch Daniels said.

Strong winds take down the stage at the Indiana State Fair Saturday night. Video image: Unknown source from Yahoo.com

Really? The forecasters of the National Weather Service did. Their warnings were issued two hours prior. Why are they not being lauded as heroes? Actually, they were just doing their job and had their issued warnings been adhered to, the stage collapse would’ve been a non-event. In fairness to the concert organizers, the band Sugarland was held from the stage due to the threat of nearby severe weather. The folks in the immediate vicinity of the temporary stage were not so fortunate.

Weather forecasting is not an exact science, as the old saying goes. However, advances in just the past few years have made tremendous improvements in weather forecasts. Yet even the most accurate and reliable weather forecast or warning is useless if it falls on deaf ears or into still hands. Who can afford to take the chance that, with warning in hand, nothing will happen or that no action needs to be taken? Perhaps the family picnic can take that risk, but can the organizers of an event where thousands of people are under their control and responsibility afford to do nothing (or not enough)? No.

This radar image screen-grabbed from about the time the gust hit the stage shows a line of severe storms just west of the Indiana State Fair grounds (located just northeast of the very center of this image). This is the sort of image that should have event organizers quaking in their boots - and jumping to action. Image: NWS

Imagine the catastrophe if NASCAR neglected to shelter, protect or otherwise evacuate a crowded race venue when severe weather threatened? What if the PGA decided to ignore such a warning? Thousands of people with literally nothing but grass and trees and likely a long walk or run to the nearest shelter. If you were at a college football game with 50,000 of your closest friends would you want to be warned of approaching severe weather? Do you think it’s up to you to take action independently or do you think it’s up to the game officials to delay the game so that you can take shelter?

You have a SmartPhone, after all — should you be your own meteorologist? On the other hand, perhaps you think that because you have put yourself under some other someone’s (whomever that may be) control, that they indeed should do everything they can to protect you.

And I’m not talking about a soaking rain, either. Football is played in the rain (and snow), we all know that. I’m talking about weather that has the potential to cause damage to life and property. The kind of damage that occurred Saturday night at the Indiana fair grounds, or the kind of damage that occurred last month when severe weather caused the stage at an outdoor Cheap Trick concert to collapse — the type of damage that is not brought about by a typical rainstorm. But the science of weather forecasting provides us with the type of information concert organizers, companies, shopping centers, swimming pools and governments can use to protect their patrons, employees and citizens. Just like the National Weather Service provided Saturday night.

I’m reminded of two things as I write this. The first from 25 years ago, the second from just this past Friday. 25 years ago I was an Air Force meteorologist at Altus Air Force Base in southwestern Oklahoma. In addition to briefing aviation weather to aircrews, it was my responsibility to issue weather forecasts, advisories and warnings to protect base resources. Like Indiana, Oklahoma is no stranger to severe weather, however it is the skilled (and seasoned) meteorologist who can issue a warning that doesn’t keep the base locked down all night (unlike at the Indiana State Fair, or so it would seem, when a weather warning was issued the base undertook specific actions to protect people and equipment which included restricting or terminating flightline activity). On this particular day I had issued a severe thunderstorm warning late in the afternoon for thunderstorms passing well to the north. As the afternoon passed into the evening, the afternoon heat began to wane and the thunderstorms moved to near Oklahoma City. I cancelled the weather warning about an hour early. Though life returned to normal on the flightline, it was late in the evening and most work had stopped. Shortly thereafter the wind speed measuring equipment spiked with a gust to nearly 45 knots. I learned the next day that scaffolding on the flightline was pushed into an engine cowling causing damage. Long story short, I could’ve been in serious trouble but the damage was relatively minor; my “punishment” was a detailed post-storm report and analysis. I learned that even a storm 70 miles away can cause dangerous, damaging winds and my future advisories and warnings always kept that experience fresh.

As an Air Force meteorologist at Altus Air Force Base, my duty was to issue weather alerts and warnings to protect base resources - aircraft, equipment and people. Image: Dave Gorham collection

The other event, though I said it happened Friday, actually happened May 24th.  Let me explain: May 24th was the day that ImpactWeather StormWatch meteorologist, Nathan Stanford, notified a client of the potential for severe weather. Not only did Nathan communicate the severe weather threat, but he told the client that the threat was greater and more immediate than previously thought. With this information in hand, our client granted an early release of its employees 45 minutes before a tornado touched down nearby, causing extensive damage. Our client specifically acknowledged that Nathan’s warning, and the action it prompted, directly saved the lives of ten employees and six contractors. Our client said, “It was the best call ever made!” ImpactWeather has an award called the Positive Impact Award and it is presented to an ImpactWeather employee who makes a difference in a client’s operation or life. The Positive Impact Award embodies our company mission: Helping  our clients operate safely, effectively and efficiently in all weather conditions. It was this past Friday that the Positive Impact Award was presented to Nathan.

It may be true that weather forecasting is not an exact science. In a case like this, that means sometimes the information is there and sometimes it’s not. When the information is there and when it’s there early enough to do something about it, it’s foolish not to act and to fully protect and ensure the safety of those who are entrusting you to do exactly that.

“It’s not clear to me at this stage how anyone could have foreseen a sudden, highly localized gust of wind in one place”? I couldn’t disagree more.

The full loop of the Indianapolis weather radar I screen-grabbed above can be found here.

 

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