Be aware that July is the worst month of the year for lightning strikes. Know that it’s impossible to outrun the bolts. If you hear thunder rumbling even 10 miles away or see a lightning flash, immediately seek shelter indoors or in a car and stay away from trees.
That advice comes from Greg Forbes, a severe weather expert at The Weather Channel in Atlanta, and John Jensenius, chief lightning safety specialist for the National Weather Service near Portland, Maine.
“This is the month when thunderstorms are most common and can pop up with very little notice,” Jensenius says. “Most lightning deaths shouldn’t happen. But it’s no wonder because people don’t take lighting seriously.”
So far this year, at least 14 people in the U.S., including two in Georgia, have been killed by lightning and 104 have been injured, Forbes said Wednesday. Georgia and Wyoming lead the nation with two deaths each, but people have been killed by lightning in at least 10 other states, he said, and the toll could be higher.
Both Georgia deaths occurred in the past two weeks. Two metro teenagers were struck by lightning Tuesday afternoon in an apartment complex in Austell and one died. A Henry County youth died June 30 when he was struck in his McDonough neighborhood.
“July is the worst month for lightning. People are on summer vacations and school is out,” Jensenius said.
Many deaths and injuries could be avoided if people only knew myth from reality, said Forbes.
Most lightning strikes occur in Florida because storms blow in from both sides of the peninsula, he said. The average number of annual lightning deaths nationwide is 42.
Georgia and other states in the Southeast also are hit by millions of lightning strikes because the area is buffeted by storms in the Gulf of Mexico and atmospheric moisture is high.
Most people who die from lightning bolts succumb to sudden cardiac arrest, Forbes said.
“A fraction of an inch can make a difference,” he said. “The width of a bolt is about like a finger. Also lightning can cause massive internal injuries, damaging the nervous system that can cause all kinds of mental problems. Typically people are burned near the point of origin."
Some do’s and don’ts, according to Forbes and Jensenius:
- Don’t take a bath or shower during a thunderstorm or wash dishes or talk on a telephone land line. Don’t surf the Internet or play video games.
- Do get indoors or inside a car. If in a car, don’t touch anything made of metal.
- If you see lightning or hear thunder, get indoors immediately. No place outside is safe. Get away from trees by at least 50 feet.
- If in a wide open space, don’t lie down. Get into a crouch, which will make you less of a target. Electric charges flow through the ground and lying down makes you a bigger target.
“Every year there are 25 million cloud-to-ground flashes,” Jensenius said. “You can hear thunder about 10 miles away but you can still be hurt by a bolt. And don’t go outside too soon. We recommend waiting 30 minutes.”
The key is to find shelter, he said, because no one can outrun most storms. A marathon runner jogging in the Big Horn Mountains in Wyoming was killed about a week ago.
Forbes said trees may offer protection from rain but are magnets for lightning. Anyone within 50 feet of a tree that is stuck can be killed or injured.
“It can spread through the roots and come up through your feet,’’ he said.
Contrary to myth, cars are safe but the rubber tires have nothing to do with it, Forbes said.
“It’s the metal body of the car,” he said. “It gets conducted around you. But convertibles are not a good place to be.”
Shirley Lamback of the National Weather Service in Peachtree City has one more tip: “Stay away from fences, power lines, windows and don’t use appliances.”
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