Unpredictable Weather and Event Planning: Lessons from the Indiana State Fair Tragedy

Event planners are always looking to the sky hoping that the weather will be perfect, it will not rain, and that the skies will be sunny. I cannot tell you how many times I have had a pit of dread that the sky would not clear and the sun would not come out because no matter what they tell you, people always blame the event planner for God’s actions… rain, hail or hornets… the event planner should be able to make it change in an instant with a simple snap of the fingers.

But, we cannot change what is not in our control and an instant is all it takes for something to go horribly wrong. An allergic attendee is stung by a bee, a fall down the stairs or the weather can turn on a dime.

This weekend, at the Indiana State Fair, things did take a turn for the worse. A massive stage and rigging setup collapsed onto the crowd minutes before the group Sugarland was set to take the stage. 5 people have been killed.

By all accounts (I have been watching the news), the planners were making the correct decisions and as the info comes in, it has become known that the show organizers WERE in touch with the National Weather Service and they WERE evacuating the crowd when the accident happened.

In fact, they had called the NWS four times for weather updates and the storm was still 20 minutes away when the tragedy happened. This should have been enough time to clear the concert area but there are some things that you cannot plan for and this event was struck by that ghost of terror.

Indiana State Fair Stage Collapse
Moments Later, 4 were Dead, and Scores Injured
State Fair Stage Collapse
Attendees were stunned and trying to help

Weather Changes Happen Quickly

Current information has pinned the cause as straight-line winds. Straight line winds are powerful gusts that lead a storm and can blow at up to 80 miles per hour for prolonged periods. I know that they are destructive, straight line winds put out the power at my house for 5 days last month and downed trees all over the area.

Here is what Wikipedia says:

Straight-line winds are common with the gust front of a thunderstorm or originate with a downburst from a thunderstorm. These events can cause considerable damage, even in the absence of a tornado. The reason these storms are so dangerous is because of the consistent wind that does not let up. The winds can reach 80 m.p.h. or more and can last for periods of twenty minutes or longer. Such straight-line wind events are most common during the spring when instability is highest and weather fronts routinely cross the country. However, straight-line wind events in the form of “derechos” can take place in areas outside of the traditional tornado alley (such as in the northeastern United States/Great Lakes Region and across southern Canada).

As the investigation continues, I TRULY hope that this turns out to be a tragic accident and that there was no “fault”, I truly do because as an event professional, I can only imagine what the promoters, planners and staff are feeling right now. They must be heartbroken, they must be scared and their careers are most likely over because of the lawsuits and because they probably never want to look at an event ever again.

On the flip side, I will not even begin to imagine what the families are going through because they have a right to be angry, they have a right to be devastated and they have a right to want someones head on a pike regardless of where blame can be assigned.

For all of us that were not involved, this should be a lesson and a warning…….

Do not screw with mother nature when the lives of your attendees are at stake. ALWAYS err on the side of caution, no matter what the client says, not matter what the radar says and no matter what the attendees say because your future and the future of many people depend on it.

There is always a chance that the storm is going to blow over, there is always a chance that the storm could pass you by and there is always the chance that the sun will come out, but is that a chance you want to take.

The next time you want to take a stupid risk, log in here and have a look at these pictures and ask yourself one question – What would you say to the families if something happened at your event? Would you say “I thought it was going to pass?”, “The client said do it?” or “None of the attendees seemed scared?”…

Do you think that would would make it all better?

Indiana Stage Collapse

Keith Johnston

Keith Johnston

Keith is the Managing Partner of i3 Events but is most widely known as the outspoken publisher of the event industry blog PlannerWire. In addition to co-hosting the Bullet List and Event Tech Pull Up Podcasts, he has been featured in Plan Your Meetings, Associations Now, Convene, Event Solutions, and has appeared on the cover of Midwest Meetings Magazine.

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