Behind-the-scenes: providing weather support to Memphis in May

MemphisWeather.net was proud to be the official weather partner of Memphis in May for the third consecutive year! That means that we had a presence on-site anytime the gates were open to the public, as well as provided ancillary forecasting services leading up to all events. It’s time-consuming, but very rewarding to be part of an awesome team of staff and volunteers that make Memphis in May a huge success year in and year out! While on-site, our job is to keep a close eye on both current weather conditions and the short-term forecast for the park and the area surrounding it and advise festival officials on any potentially hazardous conditions. These include moderate to heavy rain, lightning, strong wind, hail, and even heat indices and river levels! Communication is accomplished by two-way radio, text message or phone call, and of course face-to-face briefings.

Weather is always tricky for outdoor festivals. If you haven’t been in the Memphis area long, May is peak severe weather season in the Mid-South, a fairly wet month in general, and can also feature spells of hot and humid conditions as summer draws closer. This year, we were actually very fortunate in most respects down on the river. Beale Street Music Fest saw rain early on the first day (Friday), but dry conditions by the time gates opened and a pleasant weekend. Strong wind was an issue on Friday and it remained breezy Saturday, otherwise a nice weekend!

Looking north over Tom Lee Park towards downtown from Ashburn-Coppick Park.

The World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest overall was not bad weather-wise either. Despite seasonally warm and humid conditions, Wednesday night and Thursday were dry. Unfortunately, luck would run out on Friday afternoon as our forecast called for scattered thunderstorms across the metro, which materialized as expected. Out of an abundance of caution and for everyone’s safety, the park was evacuated once lightning entered the established safety zone around the park. With roughly 250 metal structures in Tom Lee Park, the area is basically packed with lightning rods.

As storms repeatedly fired just down river from the park and move towards downtown, the park remained closed until the threat diminished, despite no lightning or heavy rain in the park itself. Saturday’s forecast looked just as foreboding as Friday, however the barbecue gods smiled down in the form of an early morning outflow boundary that brought morning showers (which settled the dust nicely) and cooler, stable air that resulted in ideal conditions for the afternoon and evening hours. Certainly, the best possible option considering the bad news that computer models were painting for the day!

901Fest featured a great day on the river with luck again on the side of the festival as a severe wind storm that was forecast to arrive that evening hit about an hour after gates closed after a spectacular fireworks display. We are all familiar with the effects of that storm, which produced wind estimated at 70 mph at Tom Lee Park.

The memorial obelisk toppled and shattered by severe wind Saturday night, May 27, just an hour after Tom Lee Park closed following 901Fest. (Photo credit: Joe Birch)

Despite rain and thunder continuing much of the night, the rain let up around the start time for the Great American River Race. The race was delayed for a short time due to overnight cleanup efforts that were required, but despite some early showers, weather cooperated for the majority of the event. Fortunately, the major storms snuck in between 901Fest and the race the next morning! Another stroke of luck.

Having worked “behind-the-scenes” for three Memphis in May festivals now, I have to say that the festival staff is unbelievably great to work with. They are a professional, hard-working, and dedicated group of people whose main goals are the safety and comfort of patrons and ensuring that everything operationally flows as smoothly as possible. They want everyone to have a great time and remain safe – the only way that the festival can remain successful each year. All decisions are made with that in mind. The logistics involved are mind-boggling and knowing that a lot of the ‘hands-on’ work is done by a small army of dedicated volunteers is even more impressive.

The setup for the official meteorologist of Memphis in May. 

Park evacuations are not taken lightly and only occur when the safety of the patrons, volunteers, and others in the park is threatened. Just because “it isn’t even raining at the park” doesn’t mean that there is not a threat to safety (i.e., lightning doesn’t just occur where rain is falling). It’s also a significant challenge on many fronts to clear the park of patrons. Doing so multiple times in a short span is even more complicating. It just makes common sense that the “compliance rate” on subsequent evacuations would drop, thereby raising the risk level for everyone.

Serving as the staff meteorologist means that I provide the weather-related data necessary to allow festival staff to make an informed decision on how to respond. As mentioned, the decisions are not made lightly and all factors are considered. The situation is re-evaluated routinely so as to allow normal operations to resume as soon as the threat has abated. I am honored to be a part of the Memphis in May team and strive to provide the most accurate current weather information and forecasts possible so that the best decisions can be made in line with the goals stated above.

Erik Proseus
MWN Meteorologist

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MWN is a NOAA Weather Ready Nation Ambassador Meteorologist Erik Proseus is an NWA Digital Seal Holder

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