Lightning is one of the leading weather-related causes of death and injury in the United States. The U.S. had 26 lightning deaths in 2014, 23 deaths in 2013, and since May of this year there have already been 22 deaths.
Most people do not realize that they can be struck by lightning even when the center of a thunderstorm is 10 miles away and there are blue skies overhead. Talking on the telephone is the leading cause of lightning injuries inside the home and standing under a tall tree is one of the most dangerous places to take shelter.
When you are out on a lake or stream (or anywhere outdoors) and you see lightning or hear thunder, you’ll want to get to a safe and sheltered place and fast.
So how far away is the storm? When you see a flash of lightning, start counting slowly, a thousand and one, which equals one second. For every 5 seconds counted the storm is centered 1 mile away. So if you count to 10 the storm is 2 miles away, if you count to 25 the storm is 5 miles away. If the count gets shorter, the storm is coming towards you. If the count is getting higher, the storm is moving away. Just remember though that lightning can strike as far as 5 or 10 miles from the storm. So if you see lightning or hear thunder you could be struck.
Most lightning deaths and injuries in the United States occur during the summer months (with June, July, and August being the peak months for lightning activity), when the combination of lightning and outdoor activities reaches a peak. People involved in activities such as boating, swimming, fishing, bicycling, golfing, jogging, walking, hiking, camping, or working outdoors all need to take the appropriate actions when thunderstorms approach. It is always best to listen to weather reports before heading out and to check weather radars.
For the 8-year period of 2006-2013, fishermen accounted for the most deaths of any group participating in outdoor activities. During this period, there were a total of 30 fishing deaths, 16 camping deaths, and 14 boating deaths, and 13 beach deaths.
People on, or in, or near water are among those most at risk during thunderstorms because water is a good conductor of electricity. If you are out on the water head immediately to the shore and seek shelter, preferably a sturdy building or a vehicle (but keep your hands from the metal sides of the vehicle).
Small structures do little, if anything, to protect occupants from lightning. Many small open shelters on athletic fields, on golf courses, in parks, at roadside picnic areas, in school yards, and elsewhere are designed to protect people from rain and sun, but not lightning.
A shelter that does not contain plumbing or wiring throughout or some other mechanism for grounding from the roof to ground is not safe. Small wooden, vinyl, or metal sheds offer little or no protection from lightning and should be avoided during thunderstorms.
Indoors people should stay away from windows and doors and avoid contact with anything that conducts electricity, including landline telephones. Most people hurt by lightning while inside their homes are talking on the telephone at the time.
Also, avoid washers and dryers, since they not only have contacts with the plumbing and electrical systems but also contain an electrical path to the outside through the dryer vent. Avoid contact with all plumbing. Do not wash your hands, do not take a shower, do not wash dishes, and do not do laundry.
About 2,000 people are killed worldwide by lightning each year. Hundreds more survive strikes but suffer from a variety of lasting symptoms, including memory loss, dizziness, weakness, numbness, and other life-altering ailments. Injuries range from severe burns and permanent brain damage to memory loss and personality change. About 10 percent of lightning-stroke victims are killed, and 70 percent suffer serious long-term effects. About 400 people survive lightning strikes in the U.S. each year. The odds of becoming a lightning victim in the U.S. in any one year are: 1 in 700,000. The odds of being struck in your lifetime are: 1 in 3,000.
Lightning detection systems in the United States monitor an average of 25 million strokes of lightning from clouds to ground during some 100,000 thunderstorms every year. It is estimated that about 100 lightning bolts strike Earth’s surface every single second. Each bolt can contain up to one billion volts of electricity.
Lightning is extremely hot—a flash can heat the air around it to temperatures five times hotter than the sun’s surface. This heat causes surrounding air to rapidly expand and vibrate, which creates the pealing thunder we hear a short time after seeing a lightning flash.
The threat of lightning continues for a much longer period than most people realize. Wait at least 30 minutes after the last clap of thunder before leaving shelter. Don’t be fooled by sunshine or blue sky!
Some victims are struck directly by the main lightning strike; many victims are struck as the current moves in and along the ground.
If a person is struck by lightning, medical care may be needed immediately to save the person’s life. Cardiac arrest and irregularities, burns, and nerve damage are common in cases where people are struck by lightning. However, with proper treatment, including CPR if necessary, most victims survive a lightning strike, although the long-term effects on their lives and the lives of family members can be devastating.