Severe weather awareness series: lightning

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The Florida Public Radio Emergency Network recently compiled a series on the dangers of severe weather in the state and the value of residents being aware of weather safety best practices. Stay informed by following Florida Storms, the Florida Division of Emergency Management and your local National Weather Service office on social media.

Often considered the country’s lightning capital, Florida experienced 285 lightning events per square mile in 2022. It’s a common hazard, especially following sea breeze storms typical during summer months.

“It’s one of those hazards that just about everyone experiences,” said John Jensenius, lightning safety specialist with the National Lightning Safety Council.

He also said everyone is making the same safety mistakes across the county.

“If you hear thunder, you’re already in danger,” he said.

The first thing to do to protect yourself is to check the forecast first, Jensenius said. Being caught in unexpected bad weather can be avoided simply by checking the forecast before you leave for an outdoor activity.

When you arrive, Jensenius said, make sure there is a shelter nearby you could access. That can be either any indoor shelter or a hard-topped vehicle. Open-air shelters and convertible vehicles are not substantial enough to protect against lightning.

He stressed there is nowhere safe outdoors if caught in a thunderstorm.

While outside, continue to monitor conditions and be ready to act if conditions change. Unfortunately, his research shows too many people are harmed after waiting too long to get to shelter, Jensenius said.

Amy Godsey is the chief meteorologist for the Florida Division of Emergency Management. On the other hand, she said, many people may be too eager to head back outside.

“Once that rain has passed, some people are too quick to resume outdoor activities,” she said.

Lightning tends to strike the tallest object, she said. If caught outdoors, do not stand under tree cover to escape the rain or wind.

She also said it’s a myth that you will be electrocuted if you touch the victim of a lightning strike. Immediately administer first aid and call 911 if you think someone has suffered a lightning strike, Godsey said.

In Florida, 83 people have died from lightning strikes since 2006, and 19 people died in 2022. About half of that number were involved in leisure activities such as fishing or boating, Jensenius said. The other half were involved in work related activities, like roofing and landscaping. Men account for 80% of fatalities.

About one in 10 people will die from a lightning strike. While lightning fatalities may be rare, the remaining nine out of ten survivors may be left with lifelong neurological problem because of cardiac arrest and a lack of oxygen to the brain. Others may be left with numbness or memory issues.

It’s important to understand how lightning works to stay safe, Jensenius said. For example, you don’t need to be directly struck by lightning to be harmed.

“Lightning is simply looking for a connection,” Jensenius said.

It will try and make contact with anything within 150 feet of where it touches down, he said.

Tall objects like trees or poles are farther from the Earth and might be first to be struck, but a person can be harmed by the ground surface current made when lighting contacts the ground.

Contrary to popular belief, neither water nor metal “attracts” lightning.

“Nothing really ‘attracts’ lightning,” Jensenius said.

However, water is a conductor, which is why it is so important to get out of the water and avoid using running water indoors during a storm, Godsey said. Metal is also a conductor, so stay away from fences, railing and bleachers, he said.

Neither will rubber in your sneakers nor the rubber in your car’s tires protect you, she adds.

While the National Weather Service does not issue warnings specific to lightning, there are other weather apps (such as the Florida Storms app) that can tell you when there has been a lightning strike in your vicinity, Godsey said.

“It’s on each individual person to be alert,” said Godsey.

About Melissa Feito - FPREN

Melissa Feito is a multimedia producer for Florida Storms and the Florida Public Radio Emergency Network (FPREN). Reach her with questions, story ideas or feedback at mfeito2@ufl.edu.

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