Wind could ground big balloons at NYC's Thanksgiving parade

NEW YORK (AP) — Smokey Bear might feel like he’s battling Santa Ana winds — if he even gets a chance to fly.

New York City’s big Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade will take place Thursday amid strong winds that could potentially ground the giant character balloons, which have caused mishaps and injuries in the past when gusts have blown them off course.

The New York City Police Department is monitoring wind gauges along the 2-½ mile (3.22-kilometer) parade route and will order the 16 helium-filled balloons to a lower altitude or have them removed entirely if wind speeds reach dangerous levels.

The National Weather Service is projecting sustained winds of up to 26 mph (41.8 kph) with gusts to 39 mph (62.8 kph).

The iconic characters that soar between Manhattan skyscrapers will be grounded if sustained winds exceed 23 mph (37 kph) and gusts exceed 34 mph (54.7 kph) under city rules implemented after wind blew a “Cat in the Hat” balloon into a lamp post near Central Park in 1997, critically injuring a woman.

“It’s going to be a game-day decision,” Chief of Patrol Rodney Harrison said at a Tuesday briefing on the police department's parade safety measures.

If the balloons are allowed to fly this year, the intensity of the wind will determine how high they soar.

Each balloon has a distinct risk profile, which factors in its size and weight and details the optimal altitude for a given wind speed. The character balloons can go as high as 50 feet (15.2 meters) off the ground and as low as 10 feet (3 meters), Harrison said.

Related: Macy's Thanksgiving Parade Through the Years

16 PHOTOS
Macy's Thanksgiving Parade Through the Years
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Macy's Thanksgiving Parade Through the Years
UNITED STATES - NOVEMBER 01: Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade- First Parade, 1926 (Photo by NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)
A not-too-ferocious dragon caught fancy of crowd at 1931 Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. (Photo by NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)
With a dopey clown and the kind of hippo you see only in a hangover, Macy's annual Thanksgiving Day parade trundles down Central Park West. (Photo by NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)
Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, Oink Oink! This gigantic grunting porter doesn't look as though he need to be afraid of any bad wolf, no matter how big. He was one of the features of Macy's parade down Broadway. His 'oinks' were heard far and wide. (Photo by NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)
A rooftop view of the 1946 Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade (Photo by NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - NOVEMBER 22: One of characters Mighty Mouse in the annual Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade mugs for the crowd as he hogs the spotlight in Times Square. An estimated 400,000 watches the show. (Photo by Nick Petersen/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - NOVEMBER 22: Big bird Turkey 'Gorgeous Gobbler,' one of the balloon stars in Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade was moving along well. A million fans lined Our Town's streets to watch the fun. (Photo by Hal Mathewson/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - NOVEMBER 24: A clown whose 'head' is in danger of blowing away becomes big favorite with kiddies jamming street along Central Park West at Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade. (Photo by George Torrie/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - NOVEMBER 27: Nicole Grauer's 50-yard-line seat for Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade is on third floor of 1 Times Square. (Photo by Harry Hamburg/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)
Cross-eyed? Well, if you were as full of helium as Bullwinkle is... you would be also in Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade. (Photo by Mel Finkelstein/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)
High-kicking young ladies during the Macy's Day Parade at Thanksgiving in New York City, 26th November 1961. A number of tableaux behind commemorate landmarks in the city's history. (Photo by Archive Photos/Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - NOVEMBER 26: Clowns light up the faces of children watching Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade on Central Park West. (Photo by Paul DeMaria/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)
MACY'S THANKSGIVING DAY PARADE -- Pictured: The Rockettes perform during the 1966 Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade -- Photo by: NBCU Photo Bank
MACY'S THANKSGIVING DAY PARADE -- Pictured: (l-r) Hosts Betty White and Lorne Greene during the 1968 Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade -- Photo by: NBCU Photo Bank
MACY'S THANKSGIVING DAY PARADE -- Pictured: An overhead view of the 2000 Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade (Photo by Craig Blankenhorn/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)
A marching band followed by Arthur balloon during the 2000 Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade (Photo by Craig Blankenhorn/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)
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Strong winds were also a concern last year, but they ended up staying calm enough to let the balloons fly — albeit some at noticeably lower-than-usual heights. The outstretched hand of the “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” balloon, for one, was so low it appeared to hit some of his handlers on their wool cap-covered heads.

One bright spot in this year’s forecast: the temperature is expected to hit a high of about 53 degrees (11.7 Celsius).

Last year was one of the city’s coldest Thanksgivings in decades. A temperature of 21 degrees (minus 6 Celsius) at the start of the parade prompted spectators to bundle up in blankets and sleeping bags.

In addition to giant balloons of Snoopy, Spongebob, anti-wildfire warrior Smokey and others, the parade features about 8,000 marchers, performances from bands and singers such as Idina Menzel of “Frozen” fame, Kelly Rowland and Chicago, two-dozen floats and a finale with Santa Claus.

The NYPD will have thousands of officers stationed along the parade route. They’re expected to include counterterrorism teams with long guns, plainclothes officers mixed in with the crowd and K-9 teams that can sniff out explosives from a few hundred feet away.

Spectators should expect to be screened with metal detectors at security checkpoints. Certain areas near the start and finish are off-limits or will have space taken up by staging for NBC’s live broadcast.

There are no known, credible threats to the city, police said.

A threat posted over the weekend on Reddit threatening to bomb Times Square was deemed not credible, the police department said, though it did increase counterterrorism deployments to the area out of what it said was an abundance of caution.

Big crowds are expected to line the parade route, which runs 46 blocks from the outskirts of Central Park to Macy’s flagship store in midtown Manhattan.

In the past, spectators have lined up as many as 15 deep in some places. In 2017, four activists briefly disrupted things when they jumped over barriers and sat down in the street to protest changes in U.S. immigration policy.

In recent years, though, wind has been the biggest threat.

In 2005, eight years after the “Cat and the Hat” went off course, an M&Ms balloon smacked into a lamp post in Times Square, causing cuts and bruises to a woman in a wheelchair and her 11-year-old sister.

In 2017, a gust on an otherwise calm day sent a smaller balloon into a tree branch. That one popped and fell harmlessly onto the crowd.

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