Friday, September 16, 2016

Dangerous close call with lightning for fans in Tiger Stadium

The headlines following LSU's victory over Jacksonville State last Saturday were all centered around the quarterback change, but lost in the mix was what I saw as a dangerous encounter thousands of LSU fans and students had with lightning before the game even began.

Storms quickly developed in the Baton Rouge area around 5 p.m. and persisted long enough to delay the scheduled 6:30 kickoff for almost an hour.

Radar snapshot from 5:40 p.m., Saturday, Sept. 10 showing storms with plenty of lightning extending from the LSU campus northward through downtown Baton Rouge.

During the delay, SEC Network cameras were rolling as LSU students and fans filed into Tiger Stadium. A still shot captured from the video feed showed a vivid lightning strike perilously close with several thousand people already milling about the stadium.

This is clearly a close call for those in the stands. TOO close. Just how close was that lightning strike? I did a little digging to see if I could figure it out.

I obtained a lightning report from the U.S. Precision Lightning Network (USPLN). It shows a total of 171 cloud-to-ground lighting strikes within 5 miles of Tiger Stadium beginning at 5:04 p.m. and ending at 6:14 p.m. EACH one of those strikes is dangerously close. Lightning has been known to strike 10+ miles from the parent thunderstorm and can often occur even when it is not raining in a given location.

Map of cloud-to-ground lightning strikes detected within 5 miles of Tiger Stadium on Saturday, Sept. 10, 2016.
Lightning data and map from the United States Precision Lightning Network (USPLN), courtesy of The Weather Company, an IBM Business.

After exchanging messages with Brandon Zimmerman, the person who tweeted the photo, he stated the strike by SEC Network cameras was precisely at 5:30 p.m. Sure enough, the lightning report shows the closest strike to Tiger Stadium occurred right at 5:30 and was only 0.8 miles (+/- 250 meters) away.

In other words, a little worse 'luck' on Saturday and we could have been dealing with a mass casualty situation at LSU. That may seem like hyperbole to some, but I think it's a harsh reality given the amount of lightning in the area on that day.

Think it can't happen? Check out the video below in which a single lightning strike injured several soccer players in the midst of a match.

So are officials at LSU blame? From what I can tell, probably not. It's my understanding that announcements had already been made over the public address system prior to this strike warning fans to seek cover. Associate Athletic Director Michael Bonnette had this to say when asked for comment:

"We make every attempt to let people know that there is inclement weather in the area and to seek shelter. When there is weather in the area, fan safety and well-being is our primary concern. We put a graphic on all of the video boards in the stadium alerting fans to the inclement weather and to seek shelter. We also have continuous reminders about the weather in the area and to seek shelter with public address announcements in the stadium."

My take is that there are three issues that need to be addressed. 

  1. First, despite constant reminders from meteorologists, I still fear that many in the general public don't truly grasp the full danger of lightning or that strikes can occur several miles away from the parent storm, potentially while it's not even raining overhead. 
  2. Personal responsibility. Too many of us rely on someone to tell us what to do when we should be taking responsibility ourselves for our own safety.
  3. The student section. The photo showing the lightning strike clearly shows that the majority of those in the stadium at the time were in the student section. Some of that may be attributable to youthful carelessness, but I suspect it has a lot more to do with kids fearing losing their spots in the student section if they seek shelter. It may be time for campus officials and Student Government to examine how to handle this issue going forward.
Louisiana has already seen 4 fatalities this year resulting from lightning strikes. We also rank 6th in the nation for number of lightning fatalities since 1959. This is an issue that everyone needs to understand and take seriously.

2016 lightning fatalities by state as of Sept. 16. Credit: NOAA.

With a very real threat for more lightning on Saturday as tens of thousands head to the LSU and Southern University campuses, please be weather aware and have a way to track radar and lightning strikes, such as with our free weather app. And most importantly, know where to go should lightning develop over either campus while tailgating or during the games.

1 comment:

  1. LSU has an emergency system via text messages to LSU students that could be utilized to send out warning of dangerous weather and telling students to seek shelter immediately. Also, if a person leaves the stadium to seek shelter in their car or dorm until storm passes they are not allowed reentry after storm. I know many students did not want to leave and seek shelter outside stadium because they can't get back into game. Would LSU reexamine that policy?