The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Two N.C. men were cleaning up from Hurricane Isaias. Lightning struck and killed them.

The two men were cutting down trees in a thunderstorm.

Satellite imagery and derived lightning density from the GOES East satellite capturing storms over the Carolinas on Wednesday. (RAMMB/CIRA)
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There were no deaths when Hurricane Isaias first made landfall with 85 mph winds near Ocean Isle, N.C., on Monday night. But the storm indirectly contributed to two deaths in Wilmington, N.C., on Wednesday, just 30 miles to the north. The culprit? Lightning.

Ralph T. Wallace, 77, and Moo Saw Kefauver, 42, were killed when lightning struck them around 11:50 a.m. Wednesday morning. The pair had been outside cutting down trees that were damaged by Isaias.

According to Wilmington police, the strike also sparked an attic fire at a neighboring house.

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Doppler radar suggests that a band of thunderstorms formed along the coastal sea breeze late Wednesday morning, stretching some 70 miles along the beaches. Sea breeze thunderstorms have a tendency to hover and stall for a while, since the convergent air masses that give rise to them meet just inland the shoreline. The storms dropped as much as 2 inches of rain.

Radar also indicates that the pair was outside in the heart of the storm, beneath electrified storm clouds more than 40,000 feet tall. Taller storms are often more efficient at “triboelectrification,” or the process that results in charging rain and ice within cumulonimbus clouds. That is the impetus for lightning.

It is never safe to be outdoors during a thunderstorm — or even near a thunderstorm. In fact, lightning can leap 10 miles away from a storm or more, a bolt from the blue ricocheting out of the top of a thundercloud through clear air. Lightning can strike in perfectly calm and sunny conditions far from any rain or wind. If you can hear thunder, you are close enough to be struck by lightning.

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The National Weather Service recommends waiting 30 minutes after the last clap of thunder before resuming outdoor activities.

In the case of Wednesday’s lightning fatalities, bolts from the blue did not come into play. Instead, the two men were outside working during the height of a thunderstorm.

Standing near trees is especially dangerous; trees offer no protection from lightning whatsoever. If lightning strikes them, the charge often flows in a channel through the trunk and into the root system, where it can follow the roots radially outward and cause additional damage. Moreover, the rapid expansion of sap and gasses inside the trunk, instantaneously heated to 50,000 degrees or hotter, can cause parts of the tree to explode, sending potentially deadly projectiles everywhere.

It is unclear exactly what path the lightning bolt that impacted Wallace and Kefauver took.

According to John Jensenius, a lightning specialist with the National Lightning Safety Council, Wednesday’s incident marks the 11th and 12th lightning deaths in the United States this year. July tends to be the peak month for lightning deaths, followed by August.

They are the first lightning deaths in North Carolina since Aug. 23, 2019, when a 23-year-old man was killed on the beach in Kitty Hawk. Wednesday’s deaths also bring the Tar Heel State’s running total to 20 lightning fatalities since 2006.

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Men are five times more likely than women to be struck and killed by lightning.

The two fatalities will probably not count toward Isaias’s official death toll, which currently stands at nine, since the events occurred more than 36 hours after landfall and were indirectly related.

Five of Isaias’s deaths stemmed from falling trees or branches, two from flooding, and two from an overnight EF3 tornado, also in North Carolina.

Millions left in the dark and historic floods: Isaias by the numbers