Health

When Lightning Strikes: What You Must Know

Some 300 people across the U.S. are hit each year — here's how to stay safe and prevent tragedy

Twenty-five million. That’s the number of times lightning strikes the U.S. each year.

You may want to keep that in mind especially in the week ahead, as June 18-24 is Lightning Safety Awareness Week.

“In general, we’ve seen a gradual decrease in fatalities over the years,” said John Jensenius, a lightning safety specialist at the National Weather Service (NWS) and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). “However, last year we saw a significant increase in fatalities, with 38.”

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Last year’s total was the highest number of lightning fatalities since 2007, when 45 people were killed. So far this year, at least one person has died from a lightning strike. That incident occurred in Colorado, which might be surprising given that the greatest amount of lightning in the U.S. occurs in southern states along the Gulf Coast.

Central Florida actually leads the country in terms of the density of lightning strikes.

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“Based on the last 10 years, we estimate about 300 people are struck by lightning each year,” added Jensenius, who is based in Gray, Maine. “Of those, about 30 people die, and some of the survivors are left with lifelong injuries.”

A Connecticut man, Gary Jones (not his real name), is one such survivor. He was struck three separate times, once in a garage and twice in a house. Afterward he experienced ringing in his ears, joint and muscle pain, memory loss and concentration problems as a result of the lightning strike. But he is not alone. His experience is detailed alongside many lightning-strike survivor stories on a website used by the National Weather Service and NOAA to educate people on lightning science and safety.

John Jensenius said it is the combination of lightning and outdoor activities that puts people at risk.

“Florida leads the nation in lightning fatalities because it has many outdoor activities, which put people at risk combined with greatest concentration of lightning,” he said. “I have never been struck by lightning, and I do not personally know anyone who was struck and killed by lightning, but I am occasionally contacted by a lightning survivor because of my work.”

Protect yourself and your family. If you’re going to be outside, have a plan to get to safety if a thunderstorm threatens.

“Check the latest weather forecast before heading out,” recommended Jensenius. It’s also wise, of course, to consider canceling or postponing activities if the forecast calls for thunderstorms, he said.

While outside, keep an eye to the sky for developing or approaching storms. If you’re some distance from safety, start heading that direction at the first sign of a storm.

“If possible, also monitor weather conditions with a portable electronic device.”

If you hear thunder or if the sky looks threatening, get inside a substantial building or a hardtopped metal vehicle immediately.

“While inside, don’t touch anything that is plugged into an electrical outlet,” he advised. “Stay off corded phones, and wait to take a shower or wash dishes while staying away from exterior doors and windows.”

Finally, wait 30 minutes after the last rumble of thunder before returning to normal activities.

Yes, it could happen to you. These tips may seem silly and obvious. But David Smith (not his real name) of Pinson, Alabama, probably did not think it was a big deal when he went in the bathroom to take a shower — and got struck by lightning. The same for Hope Henry (also not her real name) of Omaha, Nebraska. She was struck while outside waiting for a concert and fireworks to begin.

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An outdoor venue like this may be the last place people would think about seeing lightning, given that good weather is needed for concerts and fireworks. But just because it is not raining or there are no clouds overhead does not mean complete safety from lightning.

Lightning, in fact, often strikes more than three miles from the center of the thunderstorm, far outside the rain or thunderstorm cloud. And don’t be fooled by the myth that lightning never strikes the same place twice. Lightning often does strike the same place repeatedly — especially if that place is a tall, pointy or isolated object such as a skyscraper.

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The website of lightning-strike survivor stories already has too many names. Don’t be a statistic. Be safe instead.

Chris Woodward is a reporter for American Family News and OneNewsNow.com. Based in Mississippi, he is also a contributor to OneMillionDads.com and EngageMagazine.net and a regular contributor to LifeZette

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