July 28,2017

By Jim Stefkovich, Meteorologist, Alabama Emergency Management Agency

CLANTON-When most people think about weather fatalities, they think of tornadoes. After what happened on April 27, 2011, the historic outbreak across AL and the rest of the southeast US, that’s a common response.   But, lightning is unfortunately a killer across the US as well.

This blog will explain some of the “do’s and don’ts” concerning lightning, and hopefully give you some things to think about both for yourself and loved ones. I will end the blog with a personal story about a family and lightning.

From 2006-2016, 352 people were struck and killed by lightning across the US, with almost two thirds occurring to people enjoying outdoor activities. This doesn’t take into account how many others were struck, yet survived. As of July 2017, nine deaths have been reported this year, including two in AL during July.

One death was to a teenager in Houston County on his porch. Five people were struck in a boat on Lake Harding in Lee County, where one of the occupants did not survive.

As we all know, summer in AL is time spent outdoors, especially in boating and other activities to “beat the heat”. School is also right around the corner, complete with outdoor sporting activities that will go into the fall.

So, here are some questions I have for you. Are you following the safety rules I’m about to provide?   What about your loved ones, especially those in school? Do you know the school’s, coach’s or other’s procedures or are you depending on someone else to make the decision for you?

Knowing a lightning strike is 50,000 degrees Fahrenheit (F) and water boils at approximately 212 degrees F shows just how dangerous this is. If everyone followed the National Weather Service (NWS) motto in the picture above, “When Thunder Roars Go Indoors”, I could end the blog now. But many people don’t follow this motto, possibly due to myths they’ve believed and I’ve heard during my 35 year career with the NWS. Let me address a few of them.

Thunder is a produced from lightning. Thus, ALL thunderstorms are dangerous. Many folks think that if the storm is off in the distance and it isn’t yet raining, they can’t be affected by it. Wrong!   Lightning often strikes outside the area of heavy rain and may strike as far as 10 miles from any rainfall. Many lightning deaths occur ahead of storms before any rain arrives or after storms have passed and the rain has ended.

Some folks may think, “Most people survive lightning strikes so I’ll just take my chances.” While only 10% of lightning victims die, many survivors must live the rest of their lives with intense pain, neurological disabilities, depression, and other health problems.

I had the opportunity to work with a Doctor in Chicago who performed extensive research on lightning strike survivors across the country. What she told me gives me chills to this day. She stated that like a lightning strike to a computer, the outside of the computer (screen, box that holds the hard drive/components) looks perfectly fine. But the “internal components” have sustained major harm. The same goes for the human body. Many lightning strike victims may appear fine outwardly, but internally, major damage has occurred.

So, if lightning is seen or thunder is heard, go inside a sturdy house, building or car with a roof. Stay indoors for at least 30 minutes after you last hear thunder. Don’t retreat to dugouts, sheds, pavilions, picnic shelters or other small structures; don’t use or touch electronics, outlets, corded phones or windows; don’t go under or near tall trees, swim or be near water, or stand next to metal objects.

There are many other tips you can learn to protect yourself during thunderstorms. Please go to “lightningsafety.noaa.gov” to learn more.

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I promised to end on a personal story. Years ago, a family had a daughter was the captain of her high school football cheerleading squad. During a game, a thunderstorm developed nearby, but the game kept going. What do you think happened next? Yes, you likely guessed it! The father came out of the stands and took the entire family, including the cheerleader, off of the field to a sturdy building because of the danger.

Were the parents concerned of the potential consequences from the daughter, her cheerleading coach, the football coach, and those in the stands for doing that? Absolutely! But, they decided to put the safety of loved ones over what others would think. They took personal responsibility for the safety of family members rather than depending on someone else to make that decision for them.

I hope to hear your comments and answer questions on this very important topic!