Lightning kills more people in Florida than in any other state, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. North Carolina and Texas are second and third, respectively.
Since 1960, lightning has struck and killed 253 persons in Florida, 133 in North Carolina and 120 in Texas. The comparable figure for Maryland is 101, and for Virginia it is 33. Only Alaska and Hawaii recorded no lightning fatalities during that period. Florida also leads the injury list with 678 lightning-caused injuries.
Although NOAA's calculations do not take population differences into account, the agency's records suggest that the risk is highest in Florida, North Carolina and Texas because they have more of the topography that produces summer thunderstorms and draws lightning. The strikes occur most often to people on land areas jutting into large bodies of water and on mountaintops. Florida, though flat, has a long coastline with many capes and small peninsulas.
Lightning is static electricity produced by friction within turbulent storm clouds. The result is an accumulation of more free electrons in the lower part of the cloud than in the upper part. If the charge separation becomes too great, the balance will be reestablished when a bolt of lightning, carrying a massive flow of electrons, flashes upward within the cloud.
But if the cloud passes over certain features on land, the electrons can jump down to a positively charged Earth more easily than up, seeking the nearest, hence highest, conductor.
NOAA scientists say it is sometimes possible to tell whether your body is a likely candidate to serve as the conductor. "If you feel a tingling sensation and your hair stands on end," a NOAA statement advises, "drop to your knees and bend forward, putting your hands on your knees."
The tingling and the hair standing on end are caused by the attraction of oppositely charged objects: negative cloud and positive Earth. Dropping down increases the chance that some other object will be higher and serve as a better conductor. Staying on one's toes and knees, however, minimizes contact with the ground if a person is still the highest object around.
Other advice: don't stand near lone tall objects or on hilltops; do take shelter in a grove of shorter trees; avoid open water; stay away from large metal objects including wire fences and railroad tracks. Being inside a metal-roofed car, however, is not dangerous because the metal conducts the electricity around you to the wheels, from which the charge can make a short hop to the ground.