Fire in the sky: Lightning-related injuries, deaths climb across US
August 16, 2012
FORT BENNING, Ga. - As afternoon thunderstorms continue to flare up across the Chattahoochee Valley, your odds of getting struck by lightning might be greater than you think, Fort Benning safety officials said.
The number of lightning-related injuries and deaths in the United States has spiked in recent weeks, triggered by stormy weather around the country, according to various news reports. Ten spectators were hit Aug. 5 at the NASCAR Sprint Cup race outside Pocono Raceway in Pennsylvania, leaving one man dead. The following day, another man died in Florida after being struck by lightning on the beach at Shell Island.
Every year in the U.S., about 300 people are injured and 80 people are killed due to lightning, said Maneuver Center of Excellence safety director Jill Carlson, citing data from the National Weather Service.
"(These) are also among the most common and dangerous weather events," she said. "Most deaths and injuries from lightning happen to people who have been caught outdoors in a storm in the afternoon and evening during the summer months. Though thunderstorms often bring heavy rainfall, lightning can occur far away from areas of heavy rain.
"Equate thunder with lightning, even if lightning is not visible where you are. If you can hear thunder, you are close enough to a storm to be struck by lightning."
In 2011, nearly 749,000 cloud-to-ground flashes were recorded in Georgia, Carlson said. That number topped 922,000 last year across Alabama.
According to the National Weather Service and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, 20 lightning deaths have occurred this year in 14 states. Texas leads with three, while there were two fatalities in Alabama and one in Georgia.
Carlson said it's crucial for Soldiers, Families and other personnel at Fort Benning to heed the dangers and take necessary precautions when thunderstorms approach. Two methods can be used to determine the distance of a lightning strike.
If visibility is good and nothing obstructs the view of a thunderstorm, the "30-30" rule can be applied, she said. When you see lightning, count the time until you hear thunder. If it's 30 seconds or less, the storm is within six miles and poses a serious risk.
"Seek shelter immediately," she said. "The threat of lightning continues for a much longer period than most people realize. If it is cloudy or objects are obscuring your vision, get inside immediately. It's always safer to take precautions than to wait."
People also can use the "flash-to-bang" method to figure out how far away lightning is, Carlson said. By counting the seconds between the lightning "flash" and the "bang" of thunder, you can determine its distance. Each five seconds equals one mile.
For example, if you count 15 seconds, the flash was three miles away and you're in a high-danger zone, which can extend out twice as far.
"It is important to remember that lightning can strike up to 10 miles away from a storm," Carlson said.
MYTHS AND FACTS ABOUT LIGHTNING
MYTH: Lightning never strikes the same place twice.
FACT: Lightning often strikes the same place repeatedly, especially if it's a tall, pointy, isolated object. The Empire State Building is hit nearly 100 times a year.
MYTH: If it's not raining or there aren't clouds overhead, you're safe from lightning.
FACT: Lightning often strikes more than three miles from the center of a thunderstorm, far outside the rain or thunderstorm cloud. "Bolts from the blue" can strike 10-15 miles from a thunderstorm.
MYTH: Rubber tires on a car protect you from lightning by insulating you from the ground.
FACT: Most cars are safe from lightning, but it's the metal roof and sides that protect you, NOT the rubber tires. Remember, convertibles, motorcycles, bicycles, open-shelled recreational vehicles and cars with fiberglass shells offer no protection from lightning. When lightning strikes a vehicle, it goes through the metal frame into the ground. Don't lean on doors during a thunderstorm.
MYTH: A lightning victim is electrified. If you touch them, you'll be electrocuted.
FACT: The human body does not store electricity. It is perfectly safe to touch a lightning victim to give them first aid. This is the most chilling of lightning myths. Imagine if someone died because people were afraid to give CPR.
MYTH: If outside in a thunderstorm, you should seek shelter under a tree to stay dry.
FACT: Being underneath a tree is the second-leading cause of lightning casualties. Better to get wet than fried.
MYTH: If you are in a house, you are 100 percent safe from lightning.
FACT: A house is a safe place to be during a thunderstorm as long as you avoid anything that conducts electricity. This means staying off corded phones, electrical appliances, wires, TV cables, computers, plumbing, metal doors and windows. Windows are hazardous for two reasons -- wind generated during a thunderstorm can blow objects into the window, breaking it and causing glass to shatter; and in older homes, in rare instances, lightning can come in cracks in the sides of windows.
MYTH: If trapped outside and lightning is about to strike, you should lie flat on the ground.
FACT: Lying flat increases your chance of being affected by potentially deadly ground current. If you are caught outside in a thunderstorm, you keep moving toward a safe shelter.
SOURCE: Fort Benning Safety Office