You don't have to ask John Strates to imagine what would have happened at the Erie County Fair if the tornado that took down 50 trees and caused up to $3 million damage to the fairgrounds blew through just three weeks later, after the fair opened.
"You can just look at the Labor Day storm of the New York State Fair. You can take it from that. Your answer is right there," said the director of operations of the James E. Strates Shows.
A line of fierce thunderstorms and straight line but tornado-force winds ripped through the state fairgrounds shortly after 1 a.m. on Labor Day in 1998, killing two people and causing millions of dollars of damage on the final day of the state fair. Strates Shows was running the midway there that year. There were no injuries on the midway, he said.
"What would happen? You wouldn’t have a fair the next day and you would be doing National Guard cleanup. I've lived it and done it," Strates said. "If a storm comes through like that, it's total devastation."
A week after the July 20 tornado in Hamburg, one of three in the area that day, the Erie County Fair had cleaned up 95 percent of the debris and was forging ahead with preparations for the 12-day fair that starts Aug. 9. Some of those plans include preparing for every emergency that could occur, from lost children to medical issues involving patrons, to terrorism to the weather.
Fair officials have prepared an incident action plan for each day of the fair, a booklet with events on that day, names of people in charge, telephone numbers, radio channels and various scenarios.
"There's no guess work, there's no trying to figure out who's here at any given time," said Tiger Schmittendorf, emergency manager at the fair.
And should people have to seek cover, there is room for 75,000 people to shelter in place in buildings throughout the fairgrounds. Daily attendance at the fair varies, and people come and go throughout the day, but average daily attendance is about 83,000, according to the fair. There were about 3,500 people on the grounds and at Hamburg Gaming, the casino at the fairgrounds, when the tornado hit.
Emergency preparedness means training everyone, from the vendors to the electricians and carpenters to volunteer firefighters to police to department heads and administrators, on emergency protocol at the fair.
"We've trained everybody to every level, whether traditional responder or non-traditional responders, what actions to take for their own personal safety, but also ensuring the safety of everyone around them," Schmittendorf said.
The July 20 tornado hit at midday, which would be prime time for the fair. Picture Swifty Swine's racing pigs just taking off for a race near the historic iron fence at Gate 1, a Moo-U tour at the Agriculture Discovery Center, a chainsaw artist revving her chainsaw on 42nd Street, a bike stunt show at Gate 5 near the horse show ring, and families sitting down for a picnic lunch at Slade Park.
The 700-foot wide twister blew over the Hamburg Gaming building and headed for the grandstand before bending the iron Gate 1 at McKinley Parkway, crossing the road to blow down trees on Marie Drive on its way to Orchard Park and West Falls. While a tree fell on a vacant trailer near the barns, the 60 to 80 horses assembled for a show at the Showplex seemed relatively unfazed by the high winds.
Before the funnel cloud hit, there was a fierce rain storm with high winds. The National Weather Service issued a severe thunderstorm warning at 12:21 p.m., and a tornado warning at 12:36 p.m. for parts of Wyoming, Cattaraugus and southeastern Erie counties. But it was too late to alert people in the fairgrounds area. The fast-forming tornado blew through Hamburg about 12:30 p.m., six minutes before the warning.
"If there wasn't significant rain, thunder, lighting, wind-type presence before the actual tornado came upon us that would have kind of created a self-evacuation anyways," Schmittendorf said, "the outcomes could have been considerably different."
Two people from the Erie County Fair and the Strates Shows constantly monitor the radar and other maps on the National Weather Service website, and the fair subscribes to National Weather Service alerts and another weather alert service, Schmittendorf said. Hamburg Emergency Coordinator Sean Crotty said the town also monitors the National Weather Service, and its Code Red system also pushes out weather alerts.
"If there's something going on in Detroit, we start to get a heads up, by the way, this looks like its coming our way. It could be rain, it could be wind, it could be whatever," fair CEO Dennis Lang said.
Different steps are taken depending on the type of weather, but Strates will close some of its rides in high winds.
"In a tornado during the fair, we'll do everything possible. But sometimes that’s why they're called accidents, sometimes we can't fix certain things no matter how hard we try, how hard we train," Lang said.
"We'll get everyone to safety as quickly as we possibly can. If there are injuries as a result of that we will have the staff on-site in a coordinated fashion that will address each of those individually and collectively as a whole," Schmittendorf said.
"Code Red is our most effective means of touching as many people as possible as quickly as possible," Crotty added.
The community notification and emergency warning system can be used by fairgoers if they download the app from the Google Play store and iTunes to their cellphones. If the phone's GPS is turned on and there is an alert in the area, the phone will be notified.
It's not just extreme weather like tornadoes that are tracked, but temperatures, wind and rain as well.
Managing and preparing for a million people to attend the 12-day fair is not unlike the security challenges at a Buffalo Bills game, although without the benefit of the confined space of the stadium, fair officials said.
"Here … we literally have wild animals," Schmittendorf said. "We're trying to maintain that balance between wide open Americana and simply giving folks the peace of mind we've created a safe environment."