August 14, 2012

Officials scramble to protect sports fans during threatening weather

The scene of startled players and umpires running for cover at the boom of thunder at Rangers Ballpark became instant must-see fodder from YouTube to ESPN.

The scene of startled players and umpires running for cover at the boom of thunder at Rangers Ballpark became instant must-see fodder from YouTube to ESPN.

The news from Pocono Raceway several weeks later demonstrated in the most costly terms the potential for tragedy associated with lightning at outdoor sporting events.

The death of one spectator and hospitalization of nine others after being struck by lightning during the Pennsylvania 400 left many wondering about the safety and policies at outdoor stadiums and venues.

"A great saying is 'If you hear it, fear it,'" said Larry Mowry, chief meteorologist at KTVT/Ch. 11, referring to thunder. "Most lightning strikes are confined to around 10 miles around the thunderstorm, but there have been strikes detected up to 50 miles away," a result of "blow off the top of storms called the anvil.

"If you see mammatus clouds, which look like sagging pouch-like clouds, there is a greater likelihood of seeing a lightning bolt even though the storm may be many miles away."

And that's what can make decisions to postpone games and races or when to alert spectators to leave seating areas all the more trickier.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, an average of 39 people were killed from lightning strikes each year from 2001 to 2010. It's estimated that about 300 people are injured from strikes, Mowry said, adding that it is "believed that ... number is probably higher, as many go unreported."

Only 10 percent of those struck by lightning die, though 90 percent are left with some sort of disability, Mowry added.

"You have to think of lightning as not just a single bolt," Mowry said. "Lightning is very dynamic, with many tentacles that go away from the main bolt."

Those, he said, can travel tens of feet away from the bolt itself and through the ground, electrical wires and through trees.

The best place to be during a lightning storm, of course, is indoors and away from appliances or corded items such as a computer.

If stuck outside, anything that stands taller than the surrounding area is most vulnerable.

"Say you were standing in the middle of a soccer field," Mowry said. "That is not where you want to be because you are the tallest object."

It's also why Rangers officials told spectators to get out of the upper deck the day of the close lightning strike at the ballpark in early July.

The Rangers generally start to move people when a thunderstorm is within a 10-mile radius, said Rob Matwick, executive vice president of ballpark operations.

"When something gets that close, that's a call to action," Matwick said.

Major League Baseball has its own weather service, but the Rangers also have meteorologists team officials work with on game days.

Ultimately, the umpires have discretion of on-field decisions, though Matwick said at the ballpark, his staff passes along information it has to the umpires, as it did on July 8.

"We obviously want to do everything we can to protect spectators and players and umpires and security staff and anybody else who is exposed," Matwick said.

High school stadiums made up of aluminum are also risky.

"Anyplace outside near items that conduct electricity like water and metal is a bad place to be," Mowry said.

Much of the seating at Texas Motor Speedway is made up of aluminum as well.

NASCAR in particular has come under increased scrutiny since the death of 41-year-old Brian Zimmerman at Pocono. The circuit does not have a universal policy for lightning, an official acknowledged this week.

The decision to stop a race because of weather rests with NASCAR officials, a spokesman with TMS said.

Other dangers associated with inclement weather increases for those fans who choose to stay overnight in RVs. Overnight campers are offered shelter in tunnels during inclement weather situations, officials said.

Ultimately, the odds of being struck by lightning in one lifetime is 1 in 10,000 and 1 in 1 million in a single year, Mowry said.

"Of course these odds would increase if you place yourself in harm's way," Mowry said.

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