Heavy Winds Could Mean No Balloons at Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade

Andrew Klips |

Say it ain’t so, Joe. The storm that is sweeping through the Midwest and Eastern United States that dropped nearly a foot of snow on Buffalo Tuesday night is threatening to keep balloons from flying at the 87th annual iconic Macy’s (M) Thanksgiving Day Parade tomorrow. This year, there are 16 of the large cartoon character balloons slated to be in the parade. All tallied, there are about 50 balloons that could be grounded.

The parade route covers about 2.5 miles through Manhattan, ending at the flagship Macy’s store at Herald Square. Balloons have only prohibited from lift-off once (1971) because of bad weather in the history of the event.

Hundreds of flights have been cancelled and more than 1,800 have already been delayed because of the storm. Looks like balloons won’t be the only things grounded if the storm doesn’t subside.

New York City has a rule that prohibits flying the giant helium balloons if winds are in excess of 23 miles per hour and gusts top 34 miles per hour. The guidelines were set in place after, in 1997, a Cat in the Hat balloon was swept by wind and knocked down a lamppost, hitting Kathleen Caronna. Caronna was in a coma for a month as a result of the accident. She sued Macy’s, NYC and the lamppost manufacturer for $395 million and subsequently settled for an undisclosed sum.

In addition to the wind-speed rule, a comprehensive evaluation of the accident led to other changes in how the balloons are handled.

It wasn’t the first time that weather (and lampposts) put a damper on the parade. In 1956, the only three balloons in the parade were deflated by high winds. In 1993, a Sonic the Hedgehog balloon hit a lamppost, knocking part of the fixture on an off-duty policeman, breaking his shoulder. In 2006, the ropes holding an M&M balloon got wrapped around a lamppost, hurting (not badly, though) two sisters. Seems like the new regulations were a good idea.

The National Weather Service has a hazardous weather outlook currently for New York City. The NWS outlook for tomorrow still points to the balloons being able to take flight. A 100-percent chance of precipitation this afternoon, drops to 30 percent around midnight with winds expected at 21 to 23 mph. For turkey day, the wind is expected to subside to 13 to 20 mph (with a high temperature of 34 degrees F).

"The balloons as you know can be lowered to various heights. They can be lowered all the way down or they can be eliminated, not brought out at all. These are decisions that will be made as we go forward, depending on weather conditions,” said New York City Police Commissioner Ray Kelly. Incidentally, Kelly was once a stock boy at Macy’s who was a team member in flying a turkey balloon in the parade when he was a teenager.

One NYPD sergeant is assigned to each of the 52 balloons in the parade. The sergeant is armed with instruments to monitor the wind speed and direction. Each balloon has at least 90 handlers, nearly double the number of handlers a few years ago.

"At this time, it is too early to make any determinations on the flight of the giant balloons," said Macy's spokesman Orlando Veras, in a statement. The company said it always works closely with the NYPD on the morning of the parade.

There’s plenty of other attractions in the parade, including large floats, marching bands and dancers, but the 50 million viewers of the parade – either in person or on television – will surely be watching the weather as well to see if the big balloons will be able to take to the air. A decision is expected no later than 15 minutes before the 9 AM ET start to the parade.

[Image via Flickr]

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