An Unnecessary and Avoidable Tragedy

Saturday, we had an awful tragedy in Kansas when a young man who was a husband and father of three children was killed by lightning while running in an endurance race at Elk State Park. CBS News has the background story, here.

A key excerpt of the CBS Story, quoting the event organizer,

About two-and-a-half hours before Mr. Stanley's death, I tweeted (below) about golfers continuing to play as lightning flashed in the Wichita area. My second sentence was a reference to the common remark after a
storm-related tragedy that the storm was a "surprise" or there was "no warning." As the CBS quote above demonstrates, the comment was, unfortunately, prescient.

Stipulating that I do not have any knowledge as to the procedures the Flat Rock Trail Race may or may not have had in place, I am going to discuss outdoor events, in general. 

What can we learn from this case to help prevent future tragedies? 

The first item is very simple: All of these events should have a commercial weather company providing meteorological safety services. The costs are very reasonable. If you can't afford a couple hundred dollars (a typical cost), you probably should not hold the event. 

Would a weather safety service been able to send a timely warning in this case? Yes! I've looked at the data. Let's begin with the radar data from 1:38pm. 
The approximate location of the fatal strike is the blue dot. The thunderstorm that caused the fatal lightning is depicted on this radar image on the Oklahoma border at 1:38pm, 37 minutes before the fatal strike. The storm intensified as it moved northeast and produced increasing amounts of lightning as it grew. 

This low resolution map of lightning tracks shows the lightning with that storm (purple, western arrow) as it moved northeast. The lightning track is continuous and goes over the Elk State Park area (northern arrow).

The news story states the lightning strike occurred at 2:15pm. Above is the radar at 2:15pm which shows the intense thunderstorm moving over Elk State Park (white arrow). The storm was meteorologically "well behaved" as it intensified and moved northeast. Warning of lightning from this storm would have been straightforward. The news story said it was a "small storm." The storm was a typical thunderstorm in southeast Kansas this time of year. 

The second component is a method for getting the warning to those that need it. In this case, it takes hours to run 31 miles and runners would have been scattered throughout the course. Once a weather safety service notifies the event officials, they need to alert runners, spectators, etc. A siren(s) might be effective and there are other methods that could be considered. 

Third component. Once the warning is out, there must be a way to get everyone to safety as quickly as possible. I've talked many times in the past that it is essential to match the needed "lead time" (the interval between the warning and the arrival of the storm) to the task. In this case, I would guess 30-45 minutes would be needed. This is something that can be worked out, in advance, with the weather safety provider.

Each participant should be given written materials at the time of registration that state,
  • The primacy of the warnings. If a warning (lightning, tornado, etc., threat) is issued, the event immediately ceases.
  • How the runner will receive a warning.
  • How they will evacuate the course.
  • The location of shelters. 
Because these can be important fund raisers for organizations, it is quite possible to purchase reasonably priced "weather insurance" (not to be confused with a weather safety service) that will pay off if the event has to be cancelled or postponed. 

I hope these recommendations will help prevent future unnecessary tragedies like the one Saturday. I also hope you will go to the Stanley's GoFundMe page and donate. 

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