Vincent Herzog had just taken in the view of the El Yunque rainforest from atop a rock on top of a mountain in Puerto Rico in August 2002. After a few pops of lightning, he turned to leave the rock.
When he looked down, he heard a loud “pow!” behind him and saw light coming out of his foot.
Herzog, of Gainesville, escaped without a burn or injury after the lighting that struck the ground behind him discharged upward into his leg.
“I remember feeling amazed – happy to be alive. I remember the rush of trying to get off the top of the mountain,” he said. “I would say it’s amazing to be reminded that you’re so small and that you can go and be called away at any time. Life is short.”
It takes one ampere, a measure of electric current, to stop the human heart. The average lightning bolt is 30,000 amperes, but the discharge through the ground sent 100 amperes into Herzog’s leg.
Like Herzog, most people survive lightning strikes due to surface flashover, which occurs when an absorbed current of 1,300 amperes is distributed around the outside of the body, with only about five amperes getting inside.
The chance of getting hit by lightning is close to one in a million, but of those struck, nearly 90 percent survive.
About 300 lighting-related injuries and between 70 to 100 deaths occur annually in the U.S., according to the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
Of reported incidents in the past 72 years, Florida leads the nation in lightning-related deaths and injuries. From 1959-2007, there were 449 deaths and 1,788 injuries in the state, according to the NOAA. Lightning causes more deaths in Florida than all other storm-related phenomenon.
A myth about lightning strike survivors asserts they are likely to get struck a second time. Martin Uman, UF professor of electrical and computer engineering who has been studying lightning since 1963, said it’s not true.
“There’s nobody that has any predilection to get struck by lightning, and if you’re struck once, it doesn’t give you a higher odds of getting struck again,” he said.
He said lightning often hits the ground randomly and less often hits objects standing near the ground.
Uman also said lightning victims can often be saved. CPR can revive unconscious victims.
“Don’t be afraid you’re going to get shocked by touching them,” he said. “A lot of people think if somebody’s struck by lightning, they’re all charged up, but that’s not the case. So you can touch them and you should give them CPR.”
If the strike is moderate to severe, some survivors will suffer from puncture wounds, psychomotor functions, disorientation and sleep disorders. Direct strikes can be deadly. But Uman said little is known about physiological effects a victim experiences after being hit by lightning.
Although most survive lightning strikes, it’s still unsafe to go out during a storm. Uman said it’s important to remember basic rules during lightning storms: stay inside vehicles and away from tall metal structures, fields, or single-standing trees.
Kelly Price edited this story online.