After Indiana stage collapse, Kansas fair officials extra mindful of weather

04/03/2012 1:22 PM

04/03/2012 1:22 PM

With the deadly stage collapse at the Indiana State Fair fresh in their minds, Kansas State Fair officials will gather with authorities this week to review how to keep such a tragedy from happening in Hutchinson.

General manager Denny Stoecklein said the meeting will include representatives from the Kansas Highway Patrol and Reno County Emergency Management.

"This most certainly is going to be talked about," Stoecklein said. "How do we better monitor the weather and better our knowledge of how to handle these things?"

Six people died and dozens were injured when the stage collapsed moments before a concert by the country band Sugarland was scheduled to begin on Aug. 13.

"It certainly gives you pause," Stoecklein said of the stage collapse.

Despite being warned of the approaching storm a half-hour before it arrived, fair officials didn't decide to delay the show until it was too late to alert the crowd to seek shelter, said Mike Smith, president of WeatherData, the Wichita-based private forecasting branch of AccuWeather.

A television meteorologist at the fairgrounds and the National Weather Service had told officials of the severe thunderstorm, which by definition means winds of at least 58 miles an hour or hail at least an inch in diameter.

"It is very interesting to me that you had the meteorologist telling them to call it off, you had a severe thunderstorm warning 10 minutes before the collapse, yet there was no clear evacuation order," Smith said.

While he is confident in the protocols now in place for shows at the Kansas State Fair, Stoecklein said he welcomes the review.

"It's a case of, 'Let's look at this again. Is there anything we can be doing better?' " he said.

He's already had conversations with the contractor who erects the concert stage about what they do and how they do it.

"We feel very confident in our contractor that we have and the work that they do," Stoecklein said.

The stage used at the Kansas State Fair is not nearly as tall as the one in Indianapolis, he said, and the sound system is mounted on separate towers — not on the roof of the stage.

Those towers can be lowered quickly in the event of approaching severe weather, he said.

Should severe weather loom, Stoecklein said, fair officials maintain regular contact with Reno County Emergency Management.

"They sound the sirens, they make the alerts," Stoecklein said.

Having one reliable weather information provider is better than having many, Smith said.

"The analogy is this: the man who wears one wristwatch always knows what time it is," Smith said. "The man who wears three wrist watches is never sure.

"Unless you have a trained meteorologist who understands storm warnings on staff, pay attention to the weather provider only."

If a powerful storm blows through, Stoecklein said, crowds in the grandstand will be directed to seek shelter in the concourse, which offers cover from the wind and rain.

"Knock on wood, that's something we really haven't had to deal with in a while," he said. "I can't think of the last time we've had to deal with that."

But preparations for severe weather are a must, he said, because storms are inevitable. Smith and other meteorologists rejected the assertion by Indiana state officials that the Aug. 13 storm was a "freak" act of nature.

"Gust fronts are common with severe thunderstorms in the summertime," said Jim Caruso, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Wichita.

Stoecklein said he understands why Indiana State Fair officials would want to give the Sugarland concert every opportunity to be held — even if that means delaying the concert by a couple of hours.

An act that prominent gets perhaps $300,000 or $400,000 to perform, he said.

"If you have an incident that's weather-related and the show gets canceled, they still get paid," he said. "That puts a burden on a promoter, too.

"Not that anyone would want to put someone in harm's way."

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