Be Safe During Lightning Storms

As the first day of summer approaches, we’ve already had some major thunderstorms. Experts at the University of Nebraska Medical Center recently shared some information to protect older adults and people of every age from being injured by the beautiful but deadly feature of these storms: lightning.

“An underrated killer, hotter than the surface of the sun.” That’s how the National Weather Service (NWS) describes lightning, which over the past 30 years has been responsible for an average of 47 deaths per year in the U.S. Nearly anything can be struck by lightning, including human beings. An average bolt of lightning, striking from cloud to ground, contains enough power to light a 60-watt lightbulb for six months and cool a refrigerator with an open door for 24 hours!

The National Weather Service mantra, says NWS lightning safety specialist John Jensenius, is “When thunder roars, go indoors!” The science of lightning is—well, complicated, he says. But, the safety aspect of lightning isn’t complicated: Just get inside a building or vehicle once thunder occurs or lightning strikes appear.

Check the forecast

The first step in lightning safety is staying aware of weather forecasts for your area. When thunderstorms are forecast, it’s recommended that people curtail outdoor activities. At the very least, make sure you have access to a sturdy, fully enclosed shelter, such as a home or business.

“Keep in mind that if you can hear thunder, you’re close enough to be struck by lightning,” Jensenius says. And during the storm, don’t wait to hear thunder before taking shelter. Lightning can strike 10 miles or more in the area surrounding a thunderstorm. “Seek shelter immediately. If a sturdy building isn’t available, a hard-topped vehicle will provide protection. Make sure all the vehicle windows are rolled up.”

Myths and facts about lightning

Certain metals conduct electricity. However, says Jensenius, “One of the most common misperceptions about lightning is that metal attracts a strike. That isn’t true. As the lightning approaches the ground from a storm cloud, it’s seeking a connection. Typically, that connection is the tallest object in the immediate area. It could be a tree, a fence, or the ground.”

Jensenius adds, “Another misconception about lightning is the idea that rubber protects you from a lightning strike. Rubber doesn’t have that much insulating power. You often hear of people being protected from lightning when it strikes a vehicle. That’s due to the metal shell of the vehicle. The lightning will follow the metal shell, going around a person and through or over tires.”

Other lightning safety tips

Water will conduct electricity, which is why Jensenius advises staying out of the shower and bathroom in general during a lightning storm. “Don’t shower, wash dishes or use an electronic device during a thunderstorm,” Jensenius said. “Washing machines are especially dangerous because they involve both electricity and plumbing. Land line telephones are also hazardous, but cell phones and wireless phones are safe.”

Direct contact with the ground should also be avoided since lightning current can move through soil and across wet/damp concrete. In a basement, garage or patio, wearing shoes is advised. It’s also safest to stay off the porch when you hear thunder and lightning. “And stay away from windows and doors during the storm,” Jensenius said.

Lightning fires

In addition to causing bodily injury, lightning strikes can start a fire. Wood and other flammable materials can easily ignite due to a lightning strike. House roofs and attics are the most common sites of lightning induced fires. When lightning travels through electrical wires, it burns them up, posing the risk of fire anywhere along the electrical system. If a building is struck by lightning, call the fire department. Fire may not be immediately visible, but could be smoldering somewhere in the structure. Watch for falling debris resulting from damaged shingles, chimneys, or walls.

If someone is struck

In the event that a person is struck by lightning, immediately call 911. Lightning victims don’t carry any electrical charge, so it’s safe to immediately tend to them. Cardiac arrest and irregularities, burns and nerve damage are all common when people are struck by lightning. CPR may be necessary, but most people do survive lightning strikes, even though they may always experience the effects of the strike.

It’s tempting to go outside and watch a storm, but Jensenius warns us not to. “Listen to your local forecast and always plan ahead so there’s a safe place to go in the event of a storm. And stay inside for 30 minutes after you hear the last thunder. That allows the storm to move on, and you won’t have to worry about lightning.”

Source: University of Nebraska Medical Center, adapted by IlluminAge

 If you have more questions about lightning safety, or want to learn more about keeping yourself and your property safe, visit the website of the National Weather Service.