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Storms and stadiums

Meteorologists help universities deal with severe weather on campus


by Bob Henson

Lighting strike
Lightning strikes about a kilometer (0.6 mile) away from Lane Stadium on the campus of Virginia Polytechnic Institute on 27 August 2000. Another bolt struck the rental car of ESPN sportscaster Lee Corso on the stadium grounds. (Photo by Eric Brady, courtesy The Roanoke Times.)

How do you protect tens of thousands of people at a football stadium from a tornado heading their way? That scenario leapt from the crisis management playbook into real life on 12 November at Iowa State University. Late in the afternoon, as fans were assembling to watch ISU take on the University of Colorado, a tornado-bearing thunderstorm approached campus.

Luckily, it was a close call rather than a disaster. A tornado rated as a strong F2 on the Fujita damage scale touched down three miles west of the stadium around 5:00 p.m., moving northeast at 85 kilometers per hour (53 miles per hour). Had the tornado struck the stadium, it also could have hit the only hospital in Ames. "It would have been an absolute catastrophe," says ISU atmospheric scientist William Gallus. "My take is that the worst-case scenario would have happened, despite what seemed like the best planning possible." It wasn't even ISU's first encounter with a tornado. Gallus's own workplace—the building that houses ISU's atmospheric science program—was struck directly last September by a much weaker twister that left trees tossed and
nerves frayed.

Weather certainly poses a major hazard for big sports events at universities, with lightning a threat as well as tornadoes. Yet even without a massive stadium, a university campus brings tens of thousands of people into a compact area that could be largely or completely destroyed by a major tornado. Two women were killed on 21 September 2001 when a twister ripped across the University of Maryland campus in College Park. Floods are yet another hazard, as seen on several campuses in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. A flash flood in 1998 inundated more than 400,000 library volumes at Colorado State University.

The dilemma for many universities is that severe weather poses the sort of low-probability, high-stakes risk that can be easier to ignore than to address. Some observers warn that it's only a matter of time before dozens or hundreds of people die in a tornado or severe storm at a major sporting event, whether at a university or a professional arena. Yet there's little in the way of systematic effort to tackle a problem perceived as too expensive and overwhelming to fix. On the plus side, at least two federal programs over the past few years have helped campuses grapple with their disaster risks. Many schools have stepped up to the plate with warning and evacuation systems that draw from the public, private, and academic sectors.

When plans meet reality

The severe-weather threat at the ISU-Colorado game was seen well in advance, says Gallus. Campus officials began discussions with the National Weather Service (NWS) the evening before. On the morning of the game, emergency specialists from the city of Ames, the local hospital, and ISU met to plan their strategy. "They brought in extra police, designated the indoor practice facility as a triage site, and put extra medical supplies at both ends of the stadium," says Gallus. Flyers explaining the storm threat and safety procedures were handed to fans as they began arriving well before the 6:00 p.m. kickoff.

Iowa tornado

This tornado, near Woodward, Iowa, emerged less than a half hour after its parent thunderstorm passed over the Iowa State University football stadium. (Photo by Ryan Pfannkuch.)

But ISU's careful planning was overwhelmed by fast-changing weather. By 4:00 p.m., a supercell thunderstorm was drawing near, while thousands of people clustered at tailgate parties outside the stadium. Concerned about the open-air gatherings, officials opened the stadium gates ten minutes early, at 4:20 p.m., Then, at 4:45 p.m., the stadium was evacuated. "They began telling everyone to seek shelter in their vehicles, since they expected hail and lightning," says Gallus.

Five minutes later, the storm appeared ready to drop a tornado just west of town, and the plan changed again. Several thousand people were directed to the ISU stadium's concourse. Gates were locked behind them to keep crowds from gathering around the already-full restrooms just outside the gates. At least 20,000 other fans were told to rush to several designated shelters that were a 5- to 15-minute walk away, or to take cover in a ditch. "Several thousand people stayed outside," says Gallus. He notes the ISU isn't the only campus whose stadium is located well away from other buildings, which makes seeking shelter a challenge. Moreover, he adds, the designated shelters at ISU wouldn't have held the entire stadium crowd.

While ISU escaped its tornado threat unscathed, the same wasn't true at the University of Maryland in September 2001, when the campus was struck by an F3 twister. "It was pretty intense," recalls Jay Gruber, assistant director for public safety at UM. "We got a tremendous number of phone calls reporting flying debris. We weren't sure quite what was going on." Two women died while trying to flee the tornado in a car that was lofted seven stories high before being dropped about 200 meters (660 feet) away. A day care center lost half of its roof, but there were no fatalities there or elsewhere in campus buildings.

The NWS placed the UM area under a tornado warning about 10 minutes before the campus was hit. However, says Gruber, "We just weren't equipped at the time to get that warning and to process it properly. Now we are much better prepared to handle that problem." In the tornado's wake, Gruber and colleagues installed three 128-decibel sirens on campus. They've also arranged for warnings to go out quickly—within three minutes on weekdays and five minutes at other times—through a wide range of communications systems, including the UM Web site, mass e-mail, automated and staffed AM radio stations, pagers, and the university's cable TV channel.

William Gallus

William Gallus. (Photo by Bob Henson, UCAR.)

Like many school systems and universities, UM works with a private vendor to obtain site-specific weather guidance. After the 2001 tornado, UM inked a contract with the Wichita-based firm WeatherData, whose SkyGuard service is designed for universities, K-12 school systems, and other large institutions. Clients receive proprietary software that allows them to track storms via high-resolution radar displays. When WeatherData staff detect an imminent threat, they notify campus officials directly. "Typically they'll need 15 to 20 minutes for evacuations, so our desired lead time for campuses is 20 to 30 minutes," says Don Coash, a risk consultant with WeatherData.

The NWS is also working to help strengthen university warning systems with its StormReady program. Launched in Oklahoma in 1998, StormReady now includes UM and 11 other campuses nationwide (see box), as well as more than 1,000 cities, counties, businesses, Indian nations, and military sites. In order to be recognized as a StormReady participant, each institution has to put in place a number of prescribed safety features, such as onsite training, points of contact for warning dissemination, and a formal operations plan for hazardous weather. The criteria vary depending on the size of the institution's domain. "The goal is to help participants become accountable for their own severe weather preparedness," says NWS meteorologist Lans Rothfusz, who cofounded StormReady with colleague Steve Piltz.

Games that got a little too exciting

Just as New Orleans had a number of near-misses before Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005, several stadiums packed with fans around the country have had close calls with severe weather in recent years. Dan Miller, science and operations officer at the NWS office in Duluth, Minnesota, has tracked these events and gives some examples beyond those noted in the main article.

2 October 1998: A potentially tornadic thunderstorm brought nearly continuous lightning and hail the size of golf balls to a major league playoff game between the New York Yankees and the Texas Rangers at The Ballpark in Arlington, Texas.

25 August 2001: A small but potent lightning storm developed near Owen Field in Norman, Oklahoma, as 80,000 people watched the fourth quarter of the Oklahoma–North Carolina football game. "Everyone was seemingly focused on a separate line of severe storms moving in from the northwest, but this small storm formed almost directly overhead," says Miller. One strike hit less than 500 meters (1,650 feet) from the stadium. The game was suspended for a short time.

30 May 2004: A large outbreak of severe storms, including numerous tornadoes, affected Indiana on the same day as the Indianapolis 500 auto race. Toward the end of the race (which was ended due to rain after 180 of 200 scheduled laps), one of the severe storms tracked across the south and east sides of the Indianapolis metro area. It produced an F2 tornado less than 10 miles from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, where more than 400,000 people were in attendance.

The consultant on campus

As was the case in Maryland, it often takes a close scrape to push severe-weather awareness forward on campus.

The watershed moment at Northern Illinois University came on 24 August 1998, the first day of the autumn term, when a severe thunderstorm sent winds as high as 144 kph (90 mph) across a plaza full of tents. Several students were hit by flying poles, and others were injured as computer monitors crashed to the ground.

Gilbert Sebenste

Gilbert Sebenste on the campus of Northern Illinois University. (Photo courtesy Scott Walstrom, NIU.)

"When all was said and done, the commons looked like a war zone," says Gilbert Sebenste. At the time, NIU graduate Sebenste was working at a private forecasting firm and trying to convince his alma mater to hire him as an energy analyst who could save the school money through long-range weather forecasting. After the storm hit, he says, "I thought I could carve a niche out by setting up a weather safety program and an energy saving program as well." Hired the day after the storm, Sebenste has carried out his dual duties at NIU ever since, working closely with the campus's environmental health and safety department. "It's been awesome to integrate what I learn from them with my meteorology skills," he says.

NIU became the first StormReady university in 2003 after Sebenste discovered the program on the NWS Web site. "Because we were so prepared and had almost all of the criteria in place, all we had to do was firm up our disaster plan," says Sebenste. There's been plenty of opportunity to put the NIU warning system into action, with four tornado warnings over the years and two twisters within sight of the school. Each of NIU's police officers, detectives, and security guards is a trained weather spotter, feeding reports to Sebenste and the NWS during severe weather. Sprinkled across campus are 170 NOAA Weather Radios, and an array of electronic media carries warnings within minutes. The stadium press box has a desk and computer for Sebenste dubbed NIU Weather West. "If there's any chance of lightning during a home football game, I'm there. Our coach will get notified of any incoming danger and yank the players and everyone else off the field." And NIU has gone through a campus-wide tornado drill, "just like you used to do in school," he says.

The ascent of terrorism onto the nation's disaster preparedness agenda can make it hard to implement StormReady and other programs. "Most of the money geared towards safety these days is going toward homeland security initiatives, rather than weather initiatives," notes Sebenste. However, he adds, "when you become StormReady, what you find is that you can and should integrate it with your homeland security initiatives. Once you're prepared for severe weather, you'll find you are much more prepared for getting information about terrorist attacks in real time."

NWS StormReady campuses

Abilene Christian University

University at Albany, State University of New York

University of California, Santa Barbara

Iowa State University

University of Kentucky

University of Louisville

University of Maryland

Midwestern State University

University of North Carolina at Wilmington

Northern Illinois University

University of Oklahoma

Park University

More broadly, universities have gotten an infusion of support for dealing with disasters of all stripes through the Federal Emergency Management Agency. FEMA funded more than 30 institutions as part of its Disaster Resistant University grants program, which is aimed largely at mitigation rather than evacuation. The DRU name is gone, though grants are still available to universities through FEMA's pre-disaster mitigation program. The experiences of six DRU schools—four of them UCAR members—are woven into a 2003 FEMA white paper (see "On the Web"). The paper walks universities through the process of risk assessment and the steps needed to integrate mitigation, response, and recovery plans on campus with federal, state, and local efforts.

Lightning's lethal reach

Although tornadoes are the worst fear of severe-weather planners on many campuses, lightning is a widespread and serious threat in its own right. The lightning threat to sports fans gets precious little attention, according to Joel Gratz, a master's student in environmental studies and business at the University of Colorado. Gratz attended a CU game in Denver in August 2003 with fellow CU students Ryan Church and Erik Noble. A lightning-studded storm interrupted the game for the better part of an hour, but stadium officials gave no instructions to spectators, many of whom stayed in their seats throughout the downpour. "We wondered why the event managers gave no direction to protect 76,000 people from the danger of lightning," says Gratz.

Joel Gratz

Joel Gratz. (Photo by Carlye Calvin, UCAR.)

That soggy night led the three students to delve further into the topic and to write an article for Weatherwise magazine. They now have a paper on stadium safety and lightning soon to appear in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society. One finding was that the nation's biggest college football stadiums happen to coincide with some of the areas of greatest lighting frequency, from the upper Midwest to the Southeast and Great Plains. Gratz and his colleagues note that the usual rule of thumb—take shelter if thunder follows lightning by less than 30 seconds—can be hard to employ when the noisy crowds and bright lights of a big game make it hard to see and hear what's going on with the weather.

The students did find a few campuses that take lightning seriously. On 27 August 2000, 12 lightning strikes came within 1.6 km (1 mi) of a football game at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. Though no lightning action plan was in place at the time, the school now has one, as does the University of Tennessee.

Technology may also help protect sports teams and their fans from lightning. Various private firms offer an array of hand-held lightning detectors and warning systems, although reports on their effectiveness vary. Shield wires and lightning rods might be able to safely direct lightning strikes away from stadium seating areas, according to Gratz.

Perhaps the toughest part of keeping stadiums safe from severe weather would be a cultural paradigm shift that would allow for postponing big games—with the accompanying loss of revenue and inconvenience to thousands of patrons—when a serious threat looms. It's a daunting prospect, but the possible consequences of inaction aren't appealing, either. "If an F5 tornado hits the stadium and we can't evacuate everyone, mass casualties will occur," says Sebenste. "There's not a darn thing I can do to prevent it."


On the Web

NWS StormReady program

The Ames Tornado of 12 November 2005 (William Gallus) (PowerPoint file, 6.1 MB)

Building a Disaster-Resistant University (FEMA white paper, August 2003)

Lightning and Stadiums (Joel Gratz)

NWS Lightning Safety Program



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