Atmospheric Terrorism

Over the past week or so I’ve had the privilege and honor of speaking to two very diverse audiences about the large venue severe weather threat, which has been an important concern for me and for Les Lemon for years (background PDF paper, 2003). Les and I each have been speaking on this topic for a long time as well, hoping to spur not only venues, but public, media and emergency officials, into action about planning for what I’ve begun to call “atmospheric terrorism,” since well-conceived terrorism plans that have been devised since 9-11 are quite adaptable to natural disasters as well.

First on the road was the Multi-County Skywarn extravaganza in Wheaton IL, as a guest of Tom Mefferd of DuPage County OEM and Paul Sirvatka of College of DuPage weather. Even though I was there only about 24 hours, thanks to a flight cancellation of United through O’Hare (imagine that!). [It was great to get back after a 9 year absence, not only to see Tom, Paul, Cathy, Karl, Gilbert, Matt and the rest of the gang again, but to meet some faces behind increasingly familiar names (Tyler Allison and others), and to eat absolutely outstanding deep-dish pizza, authentic Chicago style, at Gino’s East.]

Next it was on to Gene Rhoden’s new Internet radio program, High Instability — a chatty, informal, and most definitely uncensored style of show covering storm chasing, forecasting and other severe weather topics. The host (Gene), producer (RJ Evans) and guest commentator/agitator (Chuck Doswell, a.k.a. Two-Buck Chuck) are longtime friends and storm intercept colleagues who care about science, safety and responsibility in both storm observing and preparedness. It was a blast.

Son I’ll be rolling up to Lincoln, capital of Cornhusker country, friendly “enemy” territory for this Oklahoma Sooner, to do some storm spotter education and to discuss (yes) large venue preparedness once again.

I want to thank all those folks for asking me to appear. I’m just an atmospheric scientist with a passion for violent storms and for helping folks to prepare for them. I’m not a showman and won’t pretend to be (a face “made for radio” as they say). But I enjoy speaking, and speaking out, on severe weather, its power, beauty and danger — because I feel that this is my God-given purpose in life, among others…being a devoted husband and dad, contributing to the science of weather, and probably other callings yet undiscovered.

Each of these appearances affords the opportunity to engage folks on that topic that burns frightfully through the catacombs of weather nightmares, and which never fades in importance: large event venues and how they deal with tornadoes, lightning, violent thunderstorms (hail, wind) and other disastrous weather. Imagine your favorite packed speedway, horse track, stadium or fairground slammed by a violent tornado, not to mention an HP supercell with grapefruit size hail and 90 mph winds.

On a very related note, it’s Severe Weather Awareness Week in North Texas. Some awareness clearly is needed, this week and always! A friend reminded me that race week this year at Texas Motor Speedway is April 11-15, and for every day in that period, tens to hundreds of thousands of people will sit vulnerable in grandstands, the infield, RV camps, etc., culminating with nearly a quarter of a million people for the Cup race on the 15th.

Now I want to know: What “Einstein” decided to schedule this event right smack dab in the peak of North Texas tornado and supercell season? If this isn’t asking — no, brazenly begging — for trouble, I don’t know what is. That place has been my nightmare scenario for a Mayfest style storm or especially a tornado ever since I heard it was going to be built, and is a good candidate for the first 1000+ fatality tornado event in this country.

Al Moller and I each did interviews with Ch. 11 last year about this situation, in order to draw attention to it and get people talking, but talk doesn’t mean jack-squat without action. I guess it will take severe weather hitting that facility (among others) to see what action there is, because I still see no severe weather plan anywhere on their site, including places where it would be most appropriate such as “Special Situations,” “Guest Services,” the Fan Assistance Guide,” or elsewhere on the site. Site searches for “severe” and “tornado” and “weather” turn up nothing weather or safety related.

When it comes to racing and concessions, there’s all you need to know and more — information overload! But on severe storm safety in and near TMS: nothing but silence. Why?

What is the specific severe weather sheltering plan for TMS, and where is it? Don’t the fans in the grandstands, in the infield, in the parking lots and all around, deserve to be told exactly where to go and how, in the event a tornado is bearing down on the facility? Or is public safety not something worth discussing with the public?

Maybe severe storms are considered unforecastable in some quarters, a line of thinking which is becoming more and more wrong with every passing year. I hope nobody believes violent storms are merely “acts of God,” because this simple fact proves that idea dead wrong: Severe weather is predictable.

Now, in fairness, I’m not “picking on” TMS, just using them as an example (albeit the most frightening example, with the possible exception of Indy). There are many others, believe me!

Are you a racing fan with tickets to the big speedway nearest you? A baseball fan planning to attend major league games this spring and summer? An Indy fan? Do you plan to go to any crowded venue for any reason? If so, ask questions, and demand nothing less than specific and detailed answers about your safety from severe storms at these events. This is every citizen’s responsibility.

Preparedness on everyone’s part — facilities, emergency managers, law enforcement, weather forecasters and consultants, storm spotters, media, and every single fan — is absolutely critical to minimize casualties. Realistically, if a violent tornado plows through that big race, some people will die. But what can minimize the number of folks who do?

It’s about money right now — short term money, that is. Preparedness ain’t cheap, especially the larger the event. There’s a gamble that “it’s not gonna happen here,” that the odds are low, which in a statistical sense is true at any given spot. Is the prospect of thousands of lives and many thousands more permanent and debilitating injuries worth the short term cost sacrifice? Is public safety worth the price? That’s out of my control. But I have my suspicions…

I’m afraid it is going to take the disaster itself to motivate others to prepare — a sacrificial lamb, so to speak. It usually does. Nonetheless, this is a topic worth forging through, with persistence and insistence in the face of resistance. To do otherwise would be to throw in the towel, and that’s unacceptable given what’s at stake.

As Al Moller once said in an interview, the folks whose facility is creamed will lose their jobs, lose their facility and face lifelong professional and financial ruin as a result. Once that happens (not if, but once), it still will be about money: paying out lawsuits while watching other facilities nationwide scramble to get real plans in place and to publicize them, as opposed to bare-minimal “Storm Ready” PR façades of today.

Violent weather, striking an crowded large venue and causing mass casualties, is not a concept or a bad dream. It is a certainty. The only question is where and when. It’s only a matter of time.


2 Responses to “Atmospheric Terrorism”

  1. Rob Dale on March 12th, 2007 6:30 pm

    For our severe weather special in the past I tried asking the local single-A baseball team what their plans would – and they would not release it because the information is proprietary.

    This year I’m going around to local school districts, in light of Enterprise, to see what plans they have. Could be interesting…

  2. tornado on March 12th, 2007 11:11 pm

    “Proprietary,” eh? That’s basically saying, “We don’t HAVE a plan.”

    I’m sorry to type that the events of Rob’s story are not an isolated or anomalous instance of decisions rooted in evasive BS. Here are some examples of the resistance I’ve encountered, followed in brackets by brief commentary…

    1. We have no place to put everyone, so it’s unrealistic to try. [In other words, we would rather lose all 60,000 fans than only some of them because we don’t give a flip anyway.]

    2. Tornadoes don’t happen here because of ________ (fill in your favorite myth). [Usually arising from some self-appointed weather expert in a position of authority, extracting from their bunghole some ridiculously false old-wives’ tale that serves as a convenient excuse for inaction.]

    3. It’s an “act of God” and we’re not liable…see the wording on the back of our ticket stubs (every man for himself). [Again, it’s not an “Act of God” if it’s *predictable*!]

    4. We have a good plan but it’s proprietary, you can’t see it. [Another version of this is, “Our disaster plan is not for public consumption.” Say what? How is *public* safety not for *public* consumption?]

    5. The odds are so small, and it we don’t have the (manpower and/or money) to mess with it right now. [Ageless cop-out…classic head-in-sand mentality.]

    6. We’re already certified by our (EM, StormReady, safety officer, etc.) as safe. [So what exactly is the plan anyway, if it’s so well certified?]

    7. I’ll get with our (security people, lawyers, director, etc.) and get back with you. [Classic stall tactic — of course one doesn’t hear from them again.]

    8. Thanks so much for your concern and help. You’re right. We’re concerned too. We’ll get right on it. [Classic chameleon tactic. Years pass, nothing happens.]

    9. Don’t ever bother us again. Get off our property immediately or we will call the police. [At least you *know* this facility isn’t doing diddly squat!]

    I’ve probably forgotten a few more.

    These serve as good reasons why we should heavily tout the good examples of action, show that it can be done, and prove wrong the excuse-making naysayers.

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