Staying safe in a lightning storm

An underrated killer, hotter than the surface of the sun. That’s how the National Weather Service (NWS) describes lightning, which, over the past 30 years, has been responsible for an average of 47 deaths per year. 

According to the NWS, lightning strikes the United States about 25 million times each year. Although most strikes occur in summer, lightning can occur at any time of year.

Since farmers work outside frequently, they are at greater risk for lightning injury and death than the average population.

“When thunder roars, go indoors!” That’s the mantra NWS Lightning Safety Specialist John Jensenius uses when promoting lightning safety. 

The first step in lightning safety is staying aware of weather forecasts. When thunderstorms are forecast, it’s recommended to curtail outdoor activities. At the very least, make sure you have access to a sturdy, fully enclosed shelter.

When a thunderstorm starts to develop, don’t wait to hear thunder before taking shelter. Lightning can strike 10 miles or more in the area surrounding a thunderstorm. 

Lightning misconceptions

“One of the most common misconceptions about lightning is that metal attracts a strike,” Jenseius says. “That isn’t true. As lightning approaches the ground, it’s seeking a connection. Typically, that connection is the tallest object in the immediate area. It could be a tree, a fence or the ground.”

Nearly anything can be struck by lightning, including human beings. An average bolt of lightning, striking from cloud to ground, contains roughly 1,000,000,000 joules (unit of work or energy), enough to power a 60-watt lightbulb for six months and cool a refrigerator with an open door for 24 hours.

 “Rubber doesn’t have that much insulating power. You often hear of people being protected from lightning when it strikes a vehicle. That’s due to the metal shell of the vehicle. The lightning will follow the metal shell, going around a person and through or over tires.”

Enclosed farm equipment would provide the same type of protection. Anyone inside a vehicle or farm equipment during a lightning storm should keep as far away as possible from windows and the vehicles metal shell.

Heat lightning doesn’t actually exist. When flashes of lightning are seen, they’re coming from a distant thunderstorm, which is far enough away thunder can’t be heard.

Precautions

When lightning strikes, the power it contains radiates from the center of the strike to the surrounding area. That means that lightning striking the ground could injure or kill a person who was close enough to be affected by the radiating energy. It also explains why it can damage electrical appliances and electrical wiring.

“A cloud-to-ground lightning bolt will follow routes like gas and water pipes, electric lines, phone lines, cable TV/internet lines, gutters, downspouts, metal window frames – anything that conducts the electrical power,” Jensenius says.

In addition to causing bodily injury, lightning strikes can start a fire. Wood and other flammable materials can easily ignite due to a lightning strike. House roofs and attics are the most common sites of lightning induced fires. When lightning travels through electrical wires, it burns them up, posing the risk of fire anywhere along the electrical system.

A power surge caused by lightning can damage electronics or generate a shock wave that fractures concrete, brick, cinderblock and stone. Brick and stone chimneys are often damaged by lightning.

The same shockwaves may be strong enough to blow holes in plaster walls, shatter grass, create a trench in the soil and crack foundations. Shrapnel from demolished items can also cause damage to people and property.

Water will conduct electricity, which is why lightning specialists like Jensenius advise staying out of the shower and bathroom in general during a lightning storm.

“Don’t shower, wash dishes or use an electronic device during a thunderstorm,” Jensenius says. “Washing machines are especially dangerous because they involve both electricity and plumbing. Land line telephones are also hazardous, but cell phones and wireless phones are safe.”

Direct contact with the ground should also be avoided since lightning current can move through soil and across wet/damp concrete. In a basement, garage or patio, wearing shoes is advised.

If a building is struck by lightning, the fire department should be called. Fire may not be immediately visible, but could be smoldering somewhere in the structure. Watch for falling debris resulting from damaged shingles, chimneys or walls.

To protect sensitive electronics during a storm, unplug any item you wish to protect. Surge protectors and UPS units can’t provide direct-strike protection. Review property insurance to determine the level of lightning damage coverage it provides. Frequent off-site backups can help protect valuable computer data.

If a person is struck by lightning, immediately call 911. Lightning victims don’t carry any electrical charge, so it’s safe to immediately tend to them. 

Cardiac arrest and irregularities, burns and nerve damage are all common when people are struck by lightning. 

CPR may be necessary, but most people do survive lightning strikes, even though they may always experience the effects of the strike.

“Don’t stand outside and watch storms,” Jensenius says. “And stay inside for 30 minutes after you hear the last thunder,” he adds. Additional lightning safety information is available at https://www.weather.gov/safety/lightning. 

 

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