As an Amateur Radio first responder, one of the things I have been trained to do is to act as a weather spotter for NOAA (The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration). This training has reminded me how very, very dangerous lightning is and how aware we need to be to avoid the dangers. As NOAA says,” When Thunder Roars, Go Indoors”.

Lightning is fascinating to watch but also extremely dangerous. In the United States, there are approximately 25 million lightning flashes every year. Each of those 25 million flashes is a potential killer. While lightning fatalities have decreased over the past 30 years, lightning continues to be one of the top three storm-related killers in the United States. Lightning injures many more people than it kills and leaves some victims with life-long health problems.

Understanding the dangers of lightning is important so that you can get to a safe place when thunderstorms threaten. If you hear thunder, even in the distance, you are already in danger of becoming a lightning victim.

Right now, thunderstorms are a real danger in several areas from the west to the east coasts. Dry lightning is also a huge concern as it can strike without warning and is the cause of many wildfires.

All thunderstorms go through stages of growth, development, electrification, and dispersion. Thunderstorms often begin to develop early in the day as the sun heats the air near the ground causing pockets of warmer air to rise. The final stage of development occurs as the top of the cloud becomes anvil shaped. If you see an anvil shaped cloud or a cloud with a greenish tint, thunderstorms are possible, and you need to be aware and prepare.

As a thunderstorm cloud grows, precipitation forms within the cloud. Clouds contain small ice crystals in the upper levels, a mixture of small ice crystals and small hail in the middle levels, and a mixture of rain and melting hail in the lower levels.

It’s not the thunder or the rain that is most dangerous, although the rain may cause flooding, it is the lightning.  A lightning storm can occur without any precipitation. These are very dangerous and have caused many, many firestorms resulting in loss of life and property.  

A small positive charge develops near the bottom of the thunderstorm cloud. The negative charge in the middle level of thunderstorm cloud causes the ground underneath to become
positively charged. The positive charge causes the ground under it to become negatively charged. As these charges attract each other, lighting forms.

There is no safe place outside when thunderstorms are in the area. If you hear thunder, you are likely within striking distance of the storm. Just remember, When Thunder Roars, Go Indoors! Too many people wait far too long to get to a safe place when thunderstorms approach. Most of us have had the experience of being at a baseball game, in the pool or at a picnic and hearing thunder in the distance. Do we immediately leave? We should. Unfortunately, delaying action has led to many lightning deaths.

The best way to protect yourself from lightning is to avoid the threat. You simply don’t want to be caught outside in a storm. Create a lightning safety plan and discuss it with your family before the need arises. Cancel or move activities indoors when thunderstorms are expected.

If you are in a forested area and hear thunder, get out immediately. Forest fires started by lightning are very common. Last year during the California wildfires a CH-47 Chinook helicopter and a UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter flew through intense smoke and embers to rescue frightened campers at the Mammoth Lake Reservoir where they had gathered just 50 feet from the approaching fire. The fast-spreading Creek Fire had trapped more than 200 lakeside campers whose exit routes were no longer passable. Six trips were necessary to complete the rescues. One of the pilots said it was a more dangerous mission than most he had flown in combat.

What options are unsafe during a lightning storm?  Golf carts, convertibles, motorcycles, all boats, carports, open garages, covered patios, picnic pavilions, beach pavilions, golf shelters, tents of any kinds, baseball dugouts, under bleachers, sheds, greenhouses, and under a tree.

A safe shelter from lightning is an enclosed building, one with a roof, walls, and floors.

Once safely indoors:

  • Stay off corded phones, computers and other electrical equipment that put you in direct contact with electricity.
  • Avoid plumbing, including sinks, bathtubs and faucets.
  • Do not shower or take a bath during a thunder or lightning storm.
  • Stay away from windows and doors
  • Stay off porches.
  • Do not lie on concrete floors, and do not lean against concrete walls.
  • Look for a large, enclosed building when a thunder or lightning storm threatens. That’s the best choice.
  • If you are in a car and it has a hard top, stay inside and keep the windows rolled up. A safe vehicle is any fully enclosed metal-topped vehicle such as hard-topped cars, vans, busses and truck. If waiting out a storm in a vehicle, avoid using electronic devices such as cell phones and radios.
  • Avoid small sheds and lean-tos or partial shelters, like pavilions.
  • Stay at least a few feet away from open windows, sinks, toilets, tubs, showers, electric boxes and outlets, and appliances. Lightning can flow through these systems and “jump” to a person.
  • If you drive into a thunderstorm, slow down and use extra caution. If possible, pull off the road into a safe area. Do not leave your vehicle.
  • Do not venture out after a storm for 30 minutes after it has passed. Lightning can still occur.
  • If you’re unable to get inside, remove all metal, jewelry and your baseball cap, crouch down with feet together in pitcher-stance, duck your head and cover ears, becoming as small a target with as little contact with the ground as possible.

Helping someone who is struck by lightning

When someone is struck by lightning, get emergency medical help as soon as possible. If more than one person is struck by lightning, treat those who are unconscious first. They are at greatest risk of dying. A person struck by lightning may appear dead, with no pulse or breath. Often the person can be revived with cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR). There is no danger to anyone helping a person who has been struck by lightning – no electric charge remains. CPR should be attempted immediately.

Treat those who are injured but conscious next. Common injuries from being struck by lightning are burns, wounds and fractures.

After the Storm

  • Wear protective shoes and watch for downed power lines, shattered glass, splintered wood or other sharp objects. Downed power lines are very dangerous. Electricity can travel through the ground for 30 feet and can cause electrocution that far from the downed line itself.
  • If it can be done safely, turn off damaged utilities.
  • Take steps to prevent additional property damage from rain, wind and looting.
  • Keep your receipts for materials purchased to protect your property from further loss, these expenses may be reimbursable under your homeowner’s insurance policy.
  • Make an inventory list and take photos of all damaged contents.

Take lightning safety seriously and teach your family the warning signs and what to do. If you feel tinging or your hair standing on edge, run, you are about to be struck. Each year there are as many deaths from lightning as there are from hurricanes. Never take chances. In addition to deaths there is also an average of 1,800 injured. Over 90% of the survivors of lightning strikes end up divorcing because of the mental problems caused by brain injuries when electricity passes through the body. Lightning is very dangerous, don’t discount the threat.

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