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Don Paul: The truth about lightning and how to avoid getting struck

Even I had heard if you are outdoors and feel your hair stand on end, you should crouch to reduce your profile and lessen the risk of an immediate strike.

The reality: There is zero evidence to support that idea. Get moving to a shelter! Never lie flat on the ground; that increases your contact for conductivity.

On average, NOAA reports lightning kills 47 people in the U.S. annually. Hundreds more are injured. Considering there are about 25 million lightning strikes annually, that makes the risk of being struck about 1 in 12,000.

There can be large variations from year to year, depending on weather patterns. The highest lightning frequency is over the SE U.S. in general, and Florida in particular. With slow-moving thunderstorms intensifying many summer afternoons as they build in the heat and drift across the Florida peninsula from east to west, Tampa’s metro area is often the lightning capital of the U.S. later in the day. I worked there for a year, and have vivid memories of the spectacular, dangerous thunderstorms.

The risk of being struck can be greatly reduced by following safety tips, some of which the public has difficulty in accepting. Most people’s inclination is to wait for a storm to draw close with dark skies before they consider taking protective action. The truth is, if you can hear thunder, you are already at risk. Lightning can often travel from a storm 10-15 miles, in any direction. Thus, a “bolt from the blue” is really a bolt from a fairly distant thunderstorm. The sun can be shining overhead, but the horizontal reach of lightning can catch people completely unaware. This goes for storms which have already passed you, just as much as those which are drawing nearer. There is a psychological tendency to come out after the rain has moved off.

This principle of lightning reach is especially important for baseball coaches and umpires to observe, as well as golfers. So, then, what would be a safe shelter? Restrooms or vehicles would serve well, NOT dugouts. Get away from metal fences and concrete walls.

If you’re caught suddenly, stay away from open fields, high ground, and trees, water* and wet items.* (*Not because they attract lightning but because they are excellent conductors).

If you’re at the beach, open sided picnic shelters and tents offer no protection. If you can see storm clouds gathering, you should get to your car. As for camping, camps should be set up in low spots, remembering tents are not safe shelters. However, if the forecasts indicate a risk for downpours, camping anywhere near a stream bed can expose you to a life-threatening flash flood hazard, especially in hilly terrain.

Speaking of cars, it’s not the rubber tires which protect you. It’s the metal roof and doors which conduct the electricity to the ground. Convertibles and, of course, bikes and motorcycles offer zero protection. And even if you’re in a car, keep windows up and don’t touch metal surfaces.

If someone in your party is struck, dial 911 immediately and attempt CPR. Cardiac arrest is the most common life-threatening injury. Not to insult anyone’s intelligence, but it is safe to contact someone who has been struck; the body does not retain the charge.

If you’re boating, you should have a NOAA Weather Radio onboard so you can keep track of approaching threatening conditions and/or a good, reliable weather app on your smart phone with warning capacities. The latter would go for bikers and hikers as well.

During storms, corded phones can conduct, and so can plumbing and the water coming from sinks and tubs. That’s not the time to shower.

Dog houses offer no protection for your doggy, either. And in your house, sitting near old, leaky windows presents some increase in hazard as well

As for computers, most surge protectors are inadequate for lightning surges. Computers should be unplugged before the storm arrives, not during its passage.

Finally, if you couldn’t stand the thought of reading my whole article, here’s a nice National Weather Service video.



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