5 tips to stay safe from lightning
I used to teach lightning safety to kids, and I had to find a balance between encouraging their fascination with severe weather and educating them on the science and safety of it.
To grab their attention, I used a Van de Graaff generator to demonstrate static electricity and made their hair stand on end...literally. Or, I would tell them about the time when my great uncle was sitting on a toilet when lightning struck his house, and how he was blown off the toilet and across the bathroom when the electricity traveled through the plumbing and forced the toilet water up -- true story, and since he was not injured, I gave the kids permission to laugh.
In all seriousness, though, lightning is no laughing matter. At least not for the families and friends of those killed or hurt by lightning, such as the 12-year-old Virginia boy that died earlier this month while playing catch on a ballfield. Lightning kills an average of 62 people and injures hundreds more each year in the United States. This week (June 21-27) is Lightning Safety Week. The National Weather Service advises us: "When thunder roars, go indoors."
Keep reading for important tips on how to stay safe from lightning...
We are vulnerable to many things. But, being struck by lightning, much like protecting ourselves from the sun's ultraviolet rays, is largely preventable by avoiding common myths and following some basic rules:
1. Plan ahead. Before you go outdoors, check the forecast for the location where you're headed. If there is even a chance of thunderstorms, decide ahead of time where you will go if you hear thunder or see lightning and how much time it will take to get there. Also, if thunderstorms are imminent, it's o.k. to cancel outdoor plans and chose a rain date.
2. When thunder roars, go indoors. There is no safe place outdoors during a thunderstorm. Being inside -- in a permanent building with a roof and plumbing or electricity, or in a car with a metal roof -- is safer than being outside. 100 percent of the lightning strike victims in the U.S. in 2008 were outside when they were struck. They were standing near buildings, farming, hiking, camping, fishing, jogging, talking with friends, swimming, retrieving their eyeglasses outside of the house, riding bicycles or just plain walking. If you hear thunder, see threatening clouds or lightning or feel the wind speed increase suddenly, seek shelter immediately, and stay there until it has been at least 30 minutes since you last heard thunder.
3. When indoors... If lightning strikes the building you are in, the current can travel through pipes and electrical wiring. It's best to avoid anything with a cord, such as phones and computers (if you expect a storm, you can also unplug electronics like computers and stereos to prevent damage) as well as plumbing, such as sinks, toilets and showers. Porches are great places to watch electrical storms, but they are not safe. Neither are windows or doors. One other interesting tip is to avoid concrete, since it is usually reinforced with steel, which is a good conductor of electricity.
4. If stuck outdoors... You can wait out a storm underneath a freeway overpass or bridge, directly under high-tension electrical lines or 50 feet away from the metal towers that hold up these electrical lines. Don't shelter under tall, isolated trees or under partially enclosed structures and stay away from metal and water. If you're stuck out in the open, try to avoid being the tallest thing around and do not lie down on the ground. If you're with a group, spread out (electrical current can jump from one person or object to another).
5. Help victims immediately. If someone is struck by lightning and it is safe for you to go to them, do so immediately. They do not carry an electrical charge and are safe to touch. Some lightning victims can be saved with CPR or with an Automated External Defibrillator (AED). Also, call 9-1-1.
Should you find yourself talking to kids about lightning safety, like I once did, you can break the ice with the story of my great uncle (I grant you permission!). Or, there's the story of the 50-year-old man I know who was struck by lightning while hiking on a mountaintop when he was 20 and survived; though it is not possible for him to still carry a charge after all these years, he likes to tell people that he must "de-charge" himself on a metal object before touching electronic devices.
I've personally encountered lightning as well -- sometimes when safe; sometimes when not. I will never forget my fear and astonishment when I saw a streak of bright purple lightning jet horizontally across the Arizona sky while I was in a mess hall at summer camp and the electricity had gone out.
I'll also never forget the surprise monsoon storm that my family and I got stuck in while hiking along rocky cliffs in Arizona only a few summers later, and the very loud, stark-white bolt that struck 20 feet to our left as we huddled against a boulder -- by far the tallest thing around.
There have also been times I was outside when I shouldn't have been, and was lucky to have not been struck. But there are many others who have not been so lucky, who have died or now have to live with permanent neurological injuries. I'm certainly not going to try my luck during the next storm; I'll trust science and safety instead.
Lightning Safety Week resources
Lightning Safety for You and Your Family - the latest NWS brochure
Lightning Safety Quiz - test your knowledge
Current U.S. Lightning Map
Global Lightning Strikes, 1998 - 2006
Anatomy of a Lightning Stroke
How Lightning Creates Thunder