Amazing Luck in Atlanta

Yet Another Large Event Venue Is Spared a Mass Disaster

There was exactly one tornado reported in the whole USA on 14 March 2008 (preliminary), and it hit large venues in downtown Atlanta. That’s astounding. It goes to show that there doesn’t need to be a well-organized outbreak, or even a singular large and violent tornado (this one “only” was an EF-2) to realize a dangerous situation. A single, isolated severe storm in precisely the wrong place can pose a huge problem also.

They got extraordinarily lucky at the Georgia Dome. Even while barely sideswiping it, the tornado and its inflow winds were starting to transform that stadium from an indoor to an outdoor facility. Had the tornado been stronger and/or scored a more direct hit, there would have been larger pieces of that roof coming down onto those fans — maybe even the hanging catwalk that already was swinging back and forth.

The PA announcer in the infamous video waited ’til the tornado was upon them to announce severe weather in the area. That’s not evidence of a well-known, detailed severe weather plan. In this day and age, the liability risk is too large for any major venue to fail to execute a short-fuse severe storm and tornado plan of action. Instead, it was “every man for himself” in the fan seating.

The reason fans hadn’t already dispersed into the street (where they would have been even more endangered) was that the game went into overtime. That’s pure, unadulterated good luck. Spectator safety, when severe weather strikes large venues, should not depend on serendipity. But it did, and here’s how:

1. The game happened to go to overtime, keeping the fans inside before the tornado, yet
2. By good fortune, the tornado strike wasn’t stronger and more direct, therefore the roof didn’t suffer partial or substantial collapse with major falling pieces crushing those fans still milling about the exposed seating areas.

A comprehensive plan for such situations would discourage the fans from going outside, but also, use fully warning-informed announcements and posted tornado shelter signs to direct them away from areas where that roof could fall down on them. In a place like that, such shelter may include areas under the upper deck and any concourses not exposed to outside airflow.

The nightmare scenario about which I’ve BLOGged here, and about which Les Lemon and I have presented many times and written in a paper years ago, almost happened…again.

The good news is that Les, who has great organizational skills and some key contacts, has been working hard behind the scenes to assemble a national committee of experts from many related communities (public and private meteorology, severe storms forecasting and research, large venue operators, major league sports, sociology, emergency management, etc.) to tackle this matter in a systematic, nationwide way. The G-Dome event certainly will help to motivate some folks who otherwise were hesitant or unaware of the problem to get proactive. Others will keep their heads in the sand, baselessly blame “acts of God” and play Russian roulette with the crowds at these events.

[EDIT] As of this writing (18 March 2008, 2152 CDT), a fairly thorough search of the Georgia Dome website reveals no public severe weather safety plan, whatsoever. This is interesting, considering the taxpayers fund this facility directly through the State of Georgia’s Georgia World Congress Center Authority.


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