Survive a Thunderstorm!

It’s not true what they say: Lightning can strike twice. But usually once is more than enough.

June 23, 2009

RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—Planning an outdoor event can be a challenge; decisions on location, best picnic menu, or favorite water and pool toys can make or break the experience. However, so can a storm. As we enter the peak season for lightning, The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is sponsoring Lightning Safety Week in an effort to educate and prevent lightning-related injuries.

THE DETAILS: Every year, about 400 people are struck by lightning in this country. Although just 10 percent die at the time of the strike—so far in 2010, 24 people have been killed by lightning in the U.S—survivors can suffer lifetime neurological disabilities. Scientists predict we’ll be seeing stronger, more intense storms in the coming years as a result of global warming, so it’s more important than ever to know what to do if you get stuck in a storm.


WHAT IT MEANS: In the summertime, the likelihood that we’ll be spending time outdoors combines with the increased frequency of storms to raise the risk of lightning-related injuries to its peak: More than 70 percent of lightning fatalities occur between June and August.

Here are some important strategies for staying safe in a storm:

• Seek shelter. The safest place to be when lightning strikes is indoors. “Look for a large permanent structure or fully enclosed metal vehicle,” says Richard Kithil Jr., founder and CEO of the National Lightning Safety Institute. Sheds, picnic shelters, tents, or covered porches won’t protect you. It takes a structure with a solid roof, as well as plumbing or wiring, which will direct the electricity into the ground in the event of a strike.

• Let your ears alert you. Even if you don’t see lightning in your immediate area, hearing thunder should be a cue to hightail it into a house or other safe structure. The sound of thunder means that lightning, while it may not be striking, is immediately close. In some cases, lightning can strike even if there are no visible clouds directly overhead. Teach your kids that good old National Weather Service saying, “When thunder roars, get indoors.” When inside, wait 30 minutes after the last clap of thunder before going outside again.

• Know what to do if you get stuck. According to Kithil, no place outside is safe during a storm. If you do get stuck outside during a thunder or electrical storm, avoid lightning strike hot zones, which includes tall trees, water, metal objects, and high ground. Kithil recommends finding the low ground and standing in a baseball catcher’s crouch position if caught outdoors during a storm. If you’re with a group, spread out, and don’t lie flat on the ground!

• Be a proactive planner. If you’re in charge of planning an outdoor event, look for a location that’s relatively close to a parking area, so if thunder starts to rumble, people can quickly make their way to their cars. Designate someone to monitor the weather and alert the group of any possible danger. At sporting events, coaches and players are often too focused on the game to be watching the sky, says Kithil. A parent or fan might be better suited to monitor the looming clouds.

• Nix the iPod and cellphone. According to the New England Journal of Medicine, listening to an iPod or talking on a phone could cause injuries during a thunderstorm even if you’re not directly struck by lightning. Side flash—a phenomenon where lightning strikes a nearby object, like a tree, and then jumps to a person—sometimes results in flashover, in which the lightning is conducted over the skin rather than into the body. But if you’re using an iPod or cellphone, both metallic objects, the current is more likely to internalize, or go into the body. That’s bad. There have been reported cases where iPod users were burned where the cords ran down their chest, or where lightning passed through earphones and caused cranial fractures.

• Be safe inside. If you’re inside a building, stay off of corded phones, computers, and other electrical equipment that put you in direct contact with electricity. NOAA also warns to stay away from pools (indoor and outdoor), tubs, showers, and other plumbing. If the building is hit, the electricity could follow wiring or plumbing. You should also buy surge suppressors for key equipment. And install ground fault protectors on circuits near water or outdoors.

• Know how to help a victim. You can’t get electrocuted by helping a person struck by lightning; they don’t carry an electrical charge and are safe to touch. Call 911 and start administering CPR if the person is not breathing or is unresponsive. Use an Automatic External Defibrillator if one is available—just follow the directions and don’t touch the person or the machine when it shocks the victim.