This, and other lightning safety messages over the past several years have taught many Americans to immediately take shelter from lightning, cutting the U.S. lightning death rate from more than 400 per year early in the 20th century to less than 30 today, Ronald Holle, a meteorologist with Vaisala, Inc., told a session on lightning safety at the American Meteorological Society Annual Meeting in Phoenix in January.
Holle said the reduction in U.S. lightning deaths and injuries “has occurred simultaneously with a decrease from a 60 percent rural population in 1900 to the current rural population below 20 percent in the U.S. During this period, there has been a significant increase in the quality of homes, workplaces, schools, and other public and private buildings” that offer safe shelter from lightning.
While other wealthy nations have rates of lightning deaths and injuries similar to the U.S., the rates in developing nations are much like those of the U.S. 100 years ago, Holle said.
This is because the proportion of people working outdoors in developing nations is often much like that in the U.S. a century ago and a lack of substantial buildings and vehicles with hard tops, in rural areas.
Headlines like the one below from the Web site of The Standard newspaper in Kenya on Feb 20, 2015 are all too common, says Dr. Mary Ann Cooper, a leading authority on lightning injuries: “Pupil killed, 51 hospitalised after lightning strikes Bungoma school”
One of the readers’ comments with this story was: “Make it a must to install lightning arrestors (lightning rods) in all schools in affected areas.”
This is why Cooper and a few others, including Holle, in the U.S. and elsewhere have formed the, “Lightning Kills: Save a Life in Africa” project based at the African Centres for Lightning and Electromagnetics (ACLE) at the Makerere University Business School in Kampala, Uganda.
Dr. Cooper is a retired emergency physician who has been working on lightning injury prevention and with lightning and electrical injury survivors for 30 years. She was the first physician to be elected a Fellow of the American Meteorological Society.
She says the “Save a Life” group’s initial project is to begin making schools across Africa safe lightning shelters. More information is available on the group’s web site: “Lightning kills: Save a life in Africa”
The Web site says, “in the last few years, nearly half of the newspaper reports of lightning deaths in Africa have been to children at school.” Yet, “a school is often the most substantial building in a community,” Cooper says. “Thunderstorms more often occur during the day when there is a good chance that the kids would be in school.”
A typical African rural school is a 15- by 30-foot brick and mortar building with a sheet metal roof and dirt floor. The roof doesn’t protect those inside because lightning that hits it can jump directly to the ground inside the building, injuring or killing those in or near its path.
Schools in developed nations generally have electrical writing and plumbing. If lightning hits such a building it follows the wires or plumbing to ground.
To make African rural schools into lightning shelters the “Lightning Kills” project aims to provide lightning rods, down conductors and grounding to carry lightning’s electricity safely into the ground. ”The systems are being designed by lightning protection professionals and vetted through our research experts, ” Cooper says. The project will ensure they are properly installed and maintained.
She’s eager to publicize this effort because “the U.S. has the money, the know-how, and lots of charitable, good people.”
If they saw a photo of a typical African school, many Americans “would want to contribute to buy them desks, pencils or basic necessities. Instead, they could contribute toward making a lightning shelter for approximately $3,500-4,000,” she says.
“We’ve had pledges from two German manufacturers to protect schools and one just wrote me this to say their African office could help with the surveys of the schools,” Cooper says “We’ve had trouble getting ‘feet on the ground’ in Uganda to get the size, number of buildings, and other details to start implementation. We’ve just scored our first grant for parts of the Lake Victoria project and many other good things are happening!”
Cooper, who lives in Illinois, would like to establish an Illinois business or foundation that would meet the qualifications for the U.S. Internal Revenue Service to recognize donations as being tax deductible.
“But,” she says, that takes money and time. If anyone knows of an attorney who would do this pro-bono, please let me know. I’d rather use a professional than figure out how to do it myself.”
Setting up a tax-deductible organization would enable “charities or missions to use this idea and help other children or adults protect schools – Rotary, Lions Club, mission committees at churches, or individuals, whoever wants to pick this up.”
Cooper says she and those working with her “recognize that we do not have all the answers to lightning injury prevention in Africa and may not be able to make substantial inroads until the general infrastructure and economy of the continent advance.
“However, we can invite you to start making a difference in one particular area: protecting schools. While protecting each school will help, we also hope that it will cause a ‘ripple effect’ as school children and their parents come to realize that they can have a part in controlling their risk.
“Behavior and belief may change only a little at a time, but, eventually, can have far reaching consequences as communities realize the school is a safe place for their other children and for themselves in storms and as they begin learning more about lightning safety.”