The tragedy and farce of Cleveland’s Balloonfest of ’86

Cleveland, Ohio is used to being the butt of jokes. Its famous burning river and the perennial underperformance of its football team have earned it widespread mockery and the enduring moniker “the mistake on the lake.” Once one of the nation’s five largest metros, Cleveland’s industry has bled offshore and its people have fled for suburbs and Southern climes, leaving behind a well-worn rustbelt emblem with an outsized set of legacy cultural institutions.

In 1986, movers and shakers at the United Way tried to shift this narrative with a single bold stroke. Their plan: break a Guinness world record by releasing more than one million balloons into the air as a fundraising gimmick, and show the world that Cleveland could be something more than a cheap punchline.

To do so, they contracted an LA-based balloon company that spent six months preparing for the event. A structure the size of a city block, covered with a mesh net, was set up to hold the balloons, which were filled in a single day by 2,500 volunteers. Altogether, more than 1.4 million balloons were inflated and launched into the air on September 27, 1986 — and truly, it was a sight to see.

Alas, Balloonfest ’86 was not the positive turning point Cleveland had hoped for. A simple principle had evaded the organizers: what goes up must come down. A cold front trapped the balloons close to the ground and forced many of them into the lake just offshore. The rest caused problems elsewhere: shutting down airports, clogging highways and waterways, littering the region with plastic and string. Horses in surrounding exurbs suffered “permanent injuries” when they were spooked by balloons landing in their pastures, prompting lawsuits and a payout from the event organizers. Most tragically, a Coast Guard search for two missing fishermen had to be called off due to the balloons; both men drowned. (This also prompted a lawsuit and subsequent settlement.)

Asked for comment on the event years later, the United Way said simply “we would not do a balloon launch ever again.”

You can watch a short documentary (7 minutes) about the Balloonfest incident below:


The biggest waves on the Great Lakes

A massive wave pounding the shore along Lake Michigan, 2018.
A massive wave pounding the shore along Lake Michigan, 2018.

The Great Lakes, though their water is fresh, are so large they are often described as inland seas. Collectively, the Great Lakes region is sometimes called the “Third Coast”1 — and given its 5,300 miles of coastline2, it’s more than just a branding attempt to put the area on equal footing with the East and West coasts. But just how far does the comparison extend?

Far enough: even the lesser Great Lakes have seen waves large enough to make even the saltiest of sailors blanch. Waves on Lake Michigan can reach 20 to 23 feet3. More than 100 meteotsunamis — tsunami-like waves generated by rapid changes in barometric pressure — occur across the Great lakes each year. And in October 2017, the Great Lakes Observing System’s buoys recorded the largest waves it had ever detected: 28.8 feet on Lake Superior4. (The system’s records date back to 1979.)

Below, you can see footage of some truly monstrous waves on Lake Superior from 2018: