Stage Roof Collapse at Back To the Bricks Festival in Grand Blanc, Michigan

I hate to see yet another stage roof collapse but it sounds at least that the producers of the Back to the Bricks Festival near Flint, Michigan show handled it correctly yesterday.  They got warning of an approaching severe storm, they cancelled the show, got the audience out, and then later the stage roof blew down and apparently no one was hurt.  This is the way it's supposed to work.

There are always weather conditions that can cause any structure to collapse (tornadoes can scrub well built buildings down the foundation), so as I've written here so many times what's really important is that organizers are watching conditions and ready to put in an action plan.

Screen shot from this very short video clip.

Deadly Walker Brothers Circus Tent Collapse at the Lancaster Fair Grounds In New Hampshire

Well it's late summer, and that means, sadly, I'm writing about yet another tragic show and weather related disaster.  There's been so many of these tragic events that I have a whole blog category devoted to them.  This time, it's the collapse of the Walker Brothers Circus tent, which injured many people and killed a father and his daughter (and of course there was the recent deadly tent collapse near Chicago).

I don't have much to add to this horrible tragedy, except to address the usual "it struck without warning" statement which I've already seen in a TV station report. While it's quite possible that this small circus (only about 100 people were apparently inside) did not warn its guests (which is to me, their responsibility), there certainly was a warning.  

With five minutes of research I found that the National Weather Service office which covers all of New Hampshire is the Gray/Portland, ME office. Looking at this great warning archive site, I found that a warning had been issued for 21:23 UTC yesterday, which is 5:23pm local time.  A severe thunderstorm warning means, "large hail, at least 3/4 inches (0.75 inches) in diameter, and/or damaging winds, at least 58 mph, or 50 knots."

Here's a Google Earth image showing the warning polygon, which clearly includes the fair site the circus was using:

According to the Manchester Union Leader newspaper, the tent collapsed at 5:46pm, twenty three minutes after the site went under a severe thunderstorm warning.  20 minutes is plenty of time to take action IF the show organizers had a plan; it seems they did not.

People go to shows to be entertained; audience safety once inside the venue is the promoters' responsibility.  These promoters clearly did not take that responsibility seriously.  Fortunately, we're seeing other, responsible, event organizers (like recently at Lollapalooza) routinely take this threat seriously, and this is great.

Update, 11pm: I looked up the show site for the Wood Dale Prairie Fest, where the other fatal tent collapse was, and sure enough, that site was under a warning starting at 2:21pm local time; the collapse was reported at 2:35pm.  And as Erich Friend points out on his Theatre Safety blog, this show site is just west of Ohare airport so they could have easily had access to O'Hare's high res terminal doppler radar.

Storm Chase-cation 2015

For the last few years (here's last year's writeup), I've headed out storm chasing (explanations here and here) on the Great Plains as soon as my classes end, which is also generally also the end of peak chasing season in the southern plains.  This year I flew into Dallas (best flight/car rental pricing), and then headed up to Wichita Falls, Texas. This time last year, Wichita Falls was under an epic drought; this year, they got years' worth of rain just in the month of May.  I've got before and after photos of Lake Arrowhead here.  And from there, I ended up doing 3500 miles in a couple giant loops of north Texas and southern Oklahoma, with a brief jaunt into eastern New Mexico.

The first part of the trip there wasn't a whole lot going on weather wise, and I missed some of the few big storms that happened, but I did see flooding in Wichita Falls, a severe-warned gust front gust front, and then more flooding, the Cadillac Ranch in Amarillo, and even a wild boar.  I saw him jump across a little gap in a field and then he was washed away and had a long swim.  After that, I got on the north side of a crazy tornado-warned blob of hail, and it ended up chasing me into suburban Wichita Falls, TX, where I rode the storm out in a car wash (there was big hail in this storm).

Click on any photo for a larger version:

On May 27, I picked a target of Shamrock, TX, which put me in a great position to get on the amazing (and well documented by 100's of chasers) Canadian, Texas storm.  This storm moved slowly and erratically, and I was one of only a handful of chasers to end up on the back (West) side of the main tornado, as you can see in the photos below.  This storm moved slowly and dropped at least four tornadoes if not more.

After that storm, things got spotty again, and I drifted back to Amarillo (and the Cadillac ranch) and then onto Lubbock where I set up for the arrival of a huge severe-warned gust front.  I didn't get great photos because I got road raged by a redneck in the first town I set up in, then eaten alive by mosquitoes in several other spots because of the severe and widespread flooding.  I ended up in a bank drive through west of Lubbock and held down the tripod through 30-50 MPH winds and many technical problems to get a few lightning shots.

The weather then moved too far north for me to get to and make it back in time to Dallas for my flight, so I met some old friends in Fort Worth and saw a couple great bands (photos here) thanks to the recommendation from another friend.  I also saw some of the Trinity River flooding.

All in all, it was a great trip, and I hope to be back out there again next year...

The Water Woes of Wichita Falls, Texas

Last year when I was out storm chasing (highlights here), I stayed in Wichita Falls, Texas, which has been under a multi-year, extreme drought. On May 28 last year, I took photos of Lake Arrowhead, which is part of Wichita Falls' drinking water supply.  After the extreme rains of the last month, I stopped by there yesterday, and the change is dramatic.  Here's some before and after photos:

A couple more from last year:

Of course, all that rain, while so beneficial to drinking water supplies, has caused some serious flooding problems as well.

Chasing Mountains in the Sky

Mount Everest is a little over 29,000 feet tall.  The supercell thunderstorms I’m chasing for the next 10 days in the great plains can be almost twice as tall. Seeing one of these things from a distance can be amazing and even beautiful--the secrets of the atmosphere are revealed, especially if you have studied the science of the clouds. But getting closer to one of these storms, as I wrote last year in my blog entry, “Out Here in the Middle”, can be truly awe inspiring, or even scary--especially when the storm is producing a tornado. I’ve done a lot of things with a lot of potential risk, but I’m not an adrenaline junkie. I’m happiest when I manage the edge can rather than plunging over it.

Storm chasing is an expensive and sometimes tedious undertaking; you have to figure out where and when storms are going to be, drive (typically 100’s of miles a day--last year I drove about 6000 miles in 9 days) to get in position in time, wait for storms to fire, race and towards the storms as fast as possible down roads you’ve never seen before.  If you’re lucky enough to get on a storm you have to keep on top of the storm's dynamics, monitor the positions and activities of other chasers (not all of whom exhibit good judgement), and try and shoot photos while maintaining a workable escape route at all times in a location to which you’ve never been before.  And then you have to find a place to sleep, and start thinking about what tomorrow will bring.  Chasers nomadically live by the rhythm of nature, and chasing through the wide open spaces of the plains the beauty and silence of the sky is clearly evident.   

This endeavor is also incredibly engrossing, and when on the hunt, I'm typically in a constant state of "flow".  In one of my first-ever Midwest chases, I got in front of a beast of a (non-tornadic) storm, and shot the photo above. By sunset, I was really exhausted and and then eventually got stuck in a bad location with sideways rain (and fortunately no hail). I realized at that point my thinking was kind of cloudy because I hadn’t eaten anything in about 8 hours.  Anyone who knows me knows that that is a rare occurrence for me.

Another really satisfying part of chasing for me has been learning the sky. With these tiny (by global standards) storms, even the best forecast just gets you in the general area where storms might initiate--after that you're on your own with the sky (and the radar), because weather science is pretty good at telling us that the sky is going to boil with storms but it’s not good enough yet to predict where the first bubble will be.  I spotted the storm that produced the storm below before it even showed up on radar, and then stayed on it for several hours.

After this crazy school year I'm burned out and ready for a break in the routine, and looking forward to the next week.  

I'll be posting updates from "out there" on Instagram/Twitter.