Joe’s Weather Blog: A preventable tragedy (FRI-7/20)

Good afternoon.

This blog will deviate a bit from the typical weather blog…we’ll get to our weather locally more tomorrow and/or Sunday.

This blog will deal more with the tragedy that happened yesterday down towards Branson and Table Rock Lake. In my opinion this shouldn’t have happened. There were so many signs about what was to come…so many “warnings” if you will. Warnings that, if even half-way paid attention too…could’ve prevented the whole situation from occurring.

First things first. This was a tragedy. Sometimes within our weather community…all of us have this screaming from the rooftop view that “why don’t people pay attention to warnings”! This is easier said than done. Imagine you’re one of the folks on an outside tourist attraction. Odds are you would rely on whomever is in control to steer you in the right direction with regards to any emergencies that might develop. When it comes to weather though…these days things have changed somewhat.

Nowadays almost every person has some sort of weather app on their phone. Almost every person is familiar with looking at radar and surmising that a storm is coming. This should be ESPECIALLY true IF your business revolves around the weather and safety is of utmost concern.

The National Weather Service did their job yesterday. The Storm Prediction Center did their job…and the WATCH for severe thunderstorms went out around 11:30 AM yesterday (almost 8 hours before the tragedy).

So the initial WATCH was there.

As the day unfolded storms bubbled up across eastern KS…there were near 80-90 MPH winds towards the west of the KC area during the mid afternoon hours. As that disturbance tracked towards SW MO…numerous wind reports of 50-70 MPH came in from eastern KS towards SW MO after 3PM or so. On the following animation of clouds/radar…look towards the bottom. See KSGF…that’s Springfield…see KFWB…that’s Emerson airfield…or the West Branson Airport. Now look for KBBG…that’s Branson.

 

You can see the raging line of storms coming in…

Again…the history of the storms had so many reports of strong winds and wind damage.

As these storms approached the Table Rock Lake area…about 30 minutes plus, before the tragedy occurred, the NWS issued a severe thunderstorm warning for storms coming from the north.

Note that at 7PM…as the tragedy was about to occur…an update went out.

Note as well the increase in potential winds…to near 70 MPH.

Now obviously(!) the customers aren’t paying attention to the weather warnings (probably) as much as the company should have been.

To reiterate…the initial warning went out at 6:30 PM…any weather app would have shown this and or had the radar to back up what was  coming. The video shows the strong winds and the large waves. It doesn’t take much for 50-70 MPH winds to create 2-5 foot waves in a matter of minutes.

https://www.usatoday.com/videos/news/nation-now/2018/07/20/video-shows-moments-before-branson-missouri-duck-boat-capsizes/806672002/

What probably occurred is the outflow from the storms to the immediate north hit first…this stirred up the Lake…then the actual thunderstorm occurred.

You can see how the 2nd boat…the one that sank…was getting lower and lower in the water…this is a result of the boat taking in water. Once a boat is in this position…and with it taking on the incoming waves on the side and not bow (head) first…it’s troubling to say the least. I grew up around boats…and one of the 1st things I learned was that you always want to point the bow (or front of the boat) INTO the oncoming waves…it’s rough but the shape of the hull allows the water to spread away from the main areas of potential water entry into the boat. it’s amazing how quickly water can enter a boat, if it’s compromised.

Thankfully there were enough survivors that we should get an strong and reliable story of what actually occurred.

Again I don’t understand how the company can willingly allow a boat to go out in the conditions that were going to occur. Perhaps there was a consideration, depending on the timing of the departure, that “let’s watch the storms up north…perhaps they’ll break apart or weaken”…whatever. That I can sort of wrap my mind around…BUT once the warning went out, some 35 minutes before the tragedy occurred…they should’ve returned as quickly as possible. Maybe they were trying to. That we don’t know yet.

The storm was moving somewhat quicker than usual for July. Close to 35-45 MPH…again though…even IF it was moving at 60 MPH…when that warning went out…that still gives about 15-plus minutes to get into a safe area just in case.

Here’s the other thing…and one that needs to be brought up…even IF the storm’s history was lessor winds…let’s say something more typical of a summer thunderstorm…what about the HIGH risk of lightning! Wouldn’t you think that the company wouldn’t want to be out on a Lake when lightning is dancing all over the place. That’s one aspect of this that I still can’t wrap my mind around.

This was preventable…where the actual blame lies remains to be seen and that’s what the investigation will determine.

I have stressed to our news department NOT to write about how this was a “surprise” or it “came without warning” in our news copy…folks who personally dealt with the storm…that’s another story perhaps. The information was out there…the data was convincing…the warnings were in place…and yet it still happened.

So what more could the weather community have done? Is there any more? This is something that the community will look at as a whole. At some point…the information is out there…isn’t it up to the one’s who are most sensitive about safety to obtain the information? To reiterate…I’m NOT talking about the customers…I’m talking about the decision makers. Sometimes from a weather community standpoint after these types of situations…we always question ourselves…sometimes to detriment. Perhaps some of the forthcoming interviews of the business involved will get around to the plethora of warnings that are issued and whether or not that is a consideration in how they operate…and perhaps these warnings are ignored now because they are so frequent. Perhaps a business with outdoor safety in mind will say…you know…if I stopped doing work EVERY time a severe thunderstorm warning is issued…I’ll be out of business. For southern MO they come often there. This is something I’d be curious about. When the Joplin tornado occurred one of key pieces of research was the abundance of tornado warnings and the “warning fatigue” that occurs. As you know this is something that I talk about often and will be presenting at a conference to my colleagues in the weather community next month.

There will be more to learn about the decision process and the events that occurred…that I recognize.

This write-up is from the President of the American Meteorological Society.

I’d like to hear your opinions on this.

Joe

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20 comments

  • Lance Eberhardt

    When heard the company comment that, “the storm came out of nowhere.” I immediately thought, no it didn’t. We had been under TS watches all day from West Central MO to South/Southwest Central MO all day. Numerous updates via social media and weather apps went out-my phone was blowing up with updates. Several TS Warnings were issued well in advance throughout the day that stressed high winds. There were many outflow boundaries that caused havoc throughout the day too. Radar images supported everything. As you know, I’m a weather geek but for this to be a surprised for the company is shameful. Even a novice person could have seen what was coming and questioned it. Someone at the company didn’t do their due diligence. If they had done so, it would have been easy for them to realize that the situation was troubling. Granted, I don’t know all the facts but the fact of the matter is that this storm didn’t come out of nowhere. My heart weeps for all the victims and their families, I cannot even begin to imagine how they must feel. I pray that they are able to find comfort as time progresses.

  • Lavon

    I just CAN’T Understand WHY are life jackets Not REQUIRED on these Boats. Even if just THE BOAT Company /Ducks make it a Requirement. Just to save their own ass. This was TOTALY PREVENTABLE..SO Tragic.

  • Mike

    You got it right once most the time you have about a 25% chance of hitting the forecast right you have no business saying it was 100% a voidable is very inappropriate , we were under severe weather storm warning yesterday here in KC K they warned about rain hail and high winds it was sunny here and just slightly overcast most of the day not a drop of rain so I have no faith in your forecasting ability so quit bragging on yourself is what you’re doing your trying to build a rep.on the dead bodies I don’t think it’s right

    • Joe Lauria

      Mike…I was with you for part of your thoughts…then you lost me at the end. Obviously you don’t know me that well or know what stand for on the blog or within the weather community.

      • Susan Noble

        Yes, absolutely right again, Joe. No bragging… just stating facts. They were warned. Well warned! Those storms DID NOT come out of nowhere! To the the commentor, nobody suffers more than weather forecasters when something like this happens. This is why we do what we do … why we chase storms in the field, this is why we have the warnings , watch the radars, and stay up until the danger has passed. Nobody wants to have these tragedies happen. And a lot more often than not, they didn’t have to. And it hurts us all.

  • Susan Noble

    I completely agree with you Joe! This was a completely avoidable tragedy! They had all the warnings they needed, and the business failed those poor people. That business is in deep trouble, it was completely their fault! Trying to make a few extra bucks and trying to second guess Mother Nature….THEY LOST.

  • Lisa Farrell

    I am 51 and grew up along the MIssissippi. I will tell you there were several times that the weather snuck up on us clouds rolled in fast. We got back to the Marina as fast as we could however it wes scary. The waves usually were strong but not like the ones in Branson but we also knew that lighting could kill us as well. Now granted back then we only had TV and no weather channel and no cell phones. But even so the storms moved in fast each time and there is only one marina so depending how far out you were it was the only place to port. I personally would not have gotten on any boat if I saw the cloulds but just because there is a weather alert in the midwest doesn’t mean that is it going to happen. 90% of the time it does but we have had storms go to the north or south of us before. Was it negligence,? I seriously doubt anyone in that company intentionally risked the lives of the customers and employees. It was probably poor judgement on the company by not watching the weather more closely but it appears to be a trafic accident that possibly could have been prevented. The other boat did make it back though so again just horribly tragic. Almost everything we do is a risk butit does make it harder when you think it could have been avoided and that poor family lost so many. Just horribly sad.

    • Joe Lauria

      :Lisa: I agree that the company didn’t “willfully” expose their customers to the danger that was coming their way…the question in my mind is did they know what was coming…could there be a better way of getting that information to them? Did they need to be more proactive in getting the information that is out there and utilize it better. As a weather enterprise, can all of us do something or create something that makes this information more available?

  • Lacy

    There are times our softball games have continued despite warning or close lightning strikes in the area. Usually the pause the game and have have the players sit in the dugout til it passes. As a parent there have been times to wanted to tell them they are crazy to have ththe kids so exposed in the dugout. Lightning is not going to be stopped by a fence and a piece of tin. I will never understand why only the head of the league makes the decision. Coaches aren’tallowed to call it. Safety should be everyone’s responsibility. Including mine, and if I feel it’s not safe to keep my kids in a dugout I suppose I will pull them from the game and be the one who caused the team to suffer because preventable accidents like what happened on the duck ride are just that- preventable. And I sure wouldn’t want to have it on my mind that I could have done more

  • Richard

    I wonder if the public will ever be privy to the Captains account of why they went out on that water. He survived. When will the authorities question him. Because ultimately he is the one who can say what happened, what went wrong. And why he told the family not to put life jackets on. The company is totally liable for the boats being out there. It should not have happened.

  • Angela Harris

    When people say the storms blew up out of nowhere, I think they’re talking about the rapidity with which conditions changed. My cousin drives an 18-wheeler and had a scary experience with those storms. He drove over one hill and was into the them just that fast. Things went from sunny and calm to windy enough that his truck was airborne. He got very, very lucky that his truck wasn’t tossed off the road and that he got control of it, but conditions changed on him that fast.

    Even knowing the storm is coming, you know you typically have 20 to 30 minutes to get in and batten down. Sorry, but you guys can be that good. I know we always listen for certain towns to mark when we’re expecting certain conditions. These storms weren’t exactly playing by those rules. That and I think the gust front hit the reservoir lake just right to create worse than normal conditions.

    I think a lot of things happened just right to create a perfect storm of events, including some complacency on the part of the boat company. They’ve been operating for a long time with no issues. Sometimes, experience works against you instead of working in your favor, and this may have been one of those times.

  • Lisa Wheat

    Back in 95-96, I rode the ducks with my ex-husband and daughters who were 2 and 1. At the time, they did not have the rain flaps that came down on the side of the boat to protect from the rain. We were caught in a torrential downpour. We were not on the Lake at the time, we were in the process of driving to the Lake. It was raining so very hard and hitting your face, you felt like you were suffocating. I could not catch my breath and I was doing everything in my power to try and protect my daughters. The driver stopped as soon as he could at the visitor center and let us go stand in the building. The reason I share this is at the time I was from Missouri, but I had no idea what the weather would be like that day. I was on vacation. I knew what city I was in, but had no clue of the county. I couldn’t tell you if there was a warning for the area or not. Most warnings are specific to counties. How many of us pay attention to counties when were are on vacation? Most of those who passed were not from the area let alone the state. They wouldn’t have known weather was approaching. I would assume any update they would receive on their phone would be from their local agency – not the weather in Branson. (I also am aware in your blog stated the victim were not to blame but maybe if they knew it would have changed the outcoeme?)

    I also share this because the driver did what he could to protect us. We were driving on a two lane road where he couldn’t stop. He stopped when he could safely do so to get us to shelter. I seriously doubt neither the captain nor driver would have taken the boat on the Lake if they knew this severity of the storm approaching and how it would affect the Lake swells. Yes, warnings were in place, but had the boat already went into the water? Had the driver, captain been made aware of the storms? Did their dispatch know of the storms approaching? Was communication out because of the storm? etc. There is so very much left to be determined along with a timeline and I think this blog was in very poor taste without knowing all of the information. NO ONE would have taken a boat on a Lake knowing 17 people would pass away. NO ONE.

    Most accidents are caused by error and are preventable. Hindsight is 20/20. I couldn’t even begin to imagine what those families are experiencing. My heart breaks for them. My heart breaks for Branson. Hopefully in the coming weeks and months, many questions will be answered. Until then, the focus should be on comforting those who survived and responded, praying for those who remain hospitalized and need healing, and educating the public on watches, warnings and when you need to take cover. Maybe your blog question should have been “How can we as meteorologist better education the public to understand the significance of watches and warnings.” My interpretation of you blog was pointing fingers and this is just not productive.

    • Joe Lauria

      Hi Lisa…thanks for those thoughts. We’re hearing that YES the folks knew about a storm coming…so much so that they decided to go out in the water 1st (as opposed to the land part of the ride first) to try and beat the storms that were coming in.

      • Lisa Wheat

        Outrunning a storm. How many of us have done this in our life? There are still unanswered questions (I have yet to see in the media a video of the water when the boats ENTERED the Lake or any time frame of how long they had been on the Lake before the waters became choppy). I still firmly believe those captains/drivers would not have entered the water if they knew what was going to occur. Their intent – to provide families a wonderful vacation. It was a very tragic accident. I do not have a title of investigator or judge and I am sure you do not. The Missouri Hwy Patrol will conduct their investigation and decide if criminal charges need to be filed. The NTSB will conduct their investigation and decide if safety changes need to occur. Our job is not to point fingers and assign guilt or place blame. Our job is simple. Our job is to console, provide support and educate so this very tragic accident does not occur again. (And Ps… you are my favorite meteorologist in the KC area.)

      • Libby Liebig

        I have a hard time thinking that the driver and captain would do this on purpose and take this risk if they had all of the facts knowing that THEIR lives were also in just as much danger as their passengers’ lives….like Angela Harris said, yes, we knew there were storm warnings. But the rapidity in which they unfolded were unbelievable. We were not far from there at the time and within, NO EXAGGERATION, three minutes, the skies went from blue to black and no wind to massive wind.

        As you mentioned Joe, I think Warning Fatigue probably is at play as well….how quickly the patterns change, the storms change direction, etc. If we did not do things outside because of a potential of a storm in this area during the summer, we would not be doing anything outside most of the summer!

        My thoughts and prayers are with all of the families and those that lost their lives, including the employee of the company who was literally at the helm…..

  • SC

    It seems to be a lot of browbeating of the Duck Boats but there were other boats out during that time. In my opinion they were all in the wrong then and all should have heeded the warnings. It was a great tragedy and beating them that are down isn’t giving any insight on what was going through any of their minds by being on the water after all of the warnings came through. Put some focus on all of those companies that were out there that day because they obviously should have made better decisions as well, they were just spared the tragedy.

  • Amy

    The statement about people thinking that if they stopped their work every time a severe thunderstorm warning came in, they’d go out of business?
    The storms come and go in often less than an hour.
    You can see the storm coming, pull in all the boats/shut down for less than two hours, and be back out after the storm is gone. They literally killed people for an extra two hours of income.
    ANYONE in the office of this company could have pointed out the storm that was coming in and pushed for a two-hour delay…time for the boats to come in safely, the storm to hit and pass, and then go right back out. They didn’t.