Minutes before 59 mph winds toppled a state fair stage Aug. 13, 2011, Indiana State Police Capt. Brad Weaver asked the fair’s executive director to postpone the performance of the duo, Sugarland.
“We need to call this. We need to call this off,” Weaver apparently told fair director Cindy Hoye. She agreed, but it was too late.
As they were making their way to announce their decision to the crowd, the stage rigging collapsed. Dozens of concert-goers were injured. Seven died.
That’s what Kenneth Mallette of Witt Associates told the Indiana State Fair Commission last year. The emergency planning adviser, hired to investigate the tragedy, said the fair’s disaster preparedness was inadequate.
Even before Witt’s findings were released, the calamity caused fair boards across the state to examine their own emergency plans. Howard County authorities and 4-H Fair organizers announced how they would evacuate thousands of revelers if severe weather approached the fairgrounds.
Emergency Management Agency director Larry Smith had long-advocated such precautions, particularly after severe storms in 2010 blew through the Howard County Relay for Life event and shut down Ribfest. Those potentially dangerous situations uncovered a hole in the permitting process for local festivals: There’s no official criteria for stopping an event for safety reasons.
Smith told the Howard County commissioners three years ago his agency issues storm warnings to event organizers. He said there have been instances when those warnings were ignored.
To correct such oversight, Smith suggested Kokomo and Howard County require a plan for getting people to safety before issuing permits for outdoor festivals. City and county officials should add one more requirement to those safety plans:
If the county’s Emergency Management Agency advises severe weather is imminent, festival organizers should implement their evacuation plan immediately and without argument.
Emergency Management officials must have the authority to make that call — not the organizers.
If the state fair tragedy has taught Hoosiers anything, it’s this: Ignoring weather warnings can imperil safety. Kenneth Mallette told the state fair commission weather conditions had been a topic of discussion and analysis throughout the day of Aug. 13.
The decision to stop the concert wasn’t made in time to save seven lives because the wrong people were tasked with making it.