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Indiana fair tragedy was no 'fluke,' expert says

Indiana's governor was wrong when he said the blast of wind that toppled the stage rigging at the Indiana State Fair, killing 5 people, was a "fluke event", a Weather Channel expert contends.
/ Source: The Weather Channel

In a recent , Governor Mitch Daniels of Indiana was quoted as saying that the blast of wind that toppled the stage rigging at the Indiana State Fair, killing 5 people, was a "fluke event".

A "fluke" by definition is an unlikely chance occurrence. The destructive and deadly wind gust on Saturday evening in Indianapolis was no chance occurrence.

Let's stop bucketing meteorology and weather in general into some magical mystery science that can't be explained. When a tragic accident due to existing extreme weather conditions occurs, there is a notion to just throw your hands up in the air and say, "Well, nothing could have been done to avoid this" or "Nobody could have seen this coming" or "It was just a damn fluke". In many instances, that just simply is not the case and it wasn't the case in the tragedy at the Indiana State Fairgrounds. Powerful, damaging winds were a known threat several days before and during the minutes leading up to the stage collapse.

Let's lay out the facts.

The Weather Setup
The atmosphere was ripe for the development of severe weather; a clash of air masses as cooler/drier air met up with warm, humid air that was residing over the state of Indiana. A cold front swept across central Indiana on Saturday evening. It's the leading edge of the cold air mass which acts as a trigger mechanism for thunderstorm development. The thunderstorms produced heavy rain, damaging winds, hail and frequent lightning.

Inclement Weather Had Been in the Forecast
From the : The potential for severe weather was noted as early as Thursday (August 11) and again on Friday (August 12). Forecasters addressed the severe weather threat in greater detail early on Saturday (August 13). This product highlighted that damaging winds and large hail would be the most significant impacts with any thunderstorms moving through central Indiana during the late afternoon and evening. Other risks included dangerous lightning and heavy rainfall.

Severe Weather Watch and Warning
At 4:45 p.m. ET Saturday, a line of strong thunderstorms were already in progress over northern and central Illinois. The line continued to intensify as they marched into Indiana and at 5:57 p.m. ET a severe thunderstorm watch was issued for all of central Indiana. Hail up to one inch in diameter, wind gusts of up to 70 mph and lightning were all highlighted within the watch.

As the line drew closer to Indianapolis, a severe thunderstorm warning was issued for Marion County, Ind., at 8:39 p.m. ET which included the Indianapolis metro area. By definition, a severe thunderstorm is one which produces wind speeds of 58 mph or greater or hail one inch in diameter or more.

At 8:49 p.m. ET, ten minutes after the bulletin was issued, the stage rigging at the Indiana State Fair onto concert-goers after an swept through the fairgrounds. That is a ten-minute lead time for event officials to evacuate concert-goers and usher them into a place of safety and shelter. Does this seem like a fluke to you ... a chance occurrence? If a known hazard — wind gusts in excess of 60 mph — is approaching, how is the destruction it causes a fluke?

notes that "this wasn't an isolated pop-up thunderstorm that suddenly sprouted and produced a 'pulse' type of severe wind report. Although not a , what produced the wind at the concert was a strong, long-lived line of thunderstorms which had produced many severe wind/hail reports a couple of counties upstream. As noted elsewhere, there had been a severe thunderstorm watch (in fact, it was in effect well out ahead of where radar showed the storms to be at the time it was issued) and a severe thunderstorm warning issued.

And climatologically it's not like this was in an unusual place or time [for severe weather to strike]. It was in the evening, in the summer, in Indiana. While the absolute peak of summer severe wind occurrences on average is a little earlier (late June into July) and a bit farther to the east, the zone includes Indianapolis in August."

But with all this said, it shouldn't have even come down to a warning issued by the National Weather Service. Brad Panovich, chief meteorologist at WCNC-TV, Charlotte, N.C., notes in a that evacuations and the priority of seeking shelter even before the issuance of a severe thunderstorm warning should have already been in place. We are talking about a recipe for disaster — an approaching line of severe thunderstorms containing high winds and lightning bearing down on a large, metal but seemingly fragile outdoor stage set with its rigging standing high and hovering over the crowd below.

He writes, "Problem here is you have people in an outdoor event and around a temporary structure which requires them to seek shelter at a much lower threshold. Something that should have been known by those organizing the event. One of the fatalities was a stage hand in a metal light structure running a spot light, with lightning clearly visible in the distance. Lightning alone was sufficient reason to evacuate people and since lightning was within 10 miles of the fair grounds patrons should have been seeking shelter."

The science of meteorology is growing by leaps and bounds especially with continuing advances in satellite and radar technology. When severe weather strikes, we are in awe of the power and the visuals but we shouldn't be in awe of the severe weather event itself. There are definitive and well-known reasons why hail reaches softball size or a tornado strikes one neighborhood but misses the other or why wind gusts reach 70 mph. This isn't voodoo, this is meteorology. The science is getting better and better each day in timing of significant weather and its location down to city landmarks and even street level.

Let's stop dismissing the science and making it a scapegoat. The gust front was not random. This was a severe weather event which was well predicted but still led to the deaths of 5 people who were hoping to see a Sugarland concert.

This is a teaching moment. There are lessons to be learned — the main one being we should all be weather aware especially when outdoors; taking the necessary precautions in advance of approaching severe weather. Knowledge is power. When attending an outdoor event, find out the weather forecast for the day beforehand and monitor the sky. Don't just leave the decision making to event officials. Use your common sense and take matters into your own hands. If you don't feel safe, do something about it. Seek safety and look after the well-being of your friends, family and others around you.