Kelly Baughman

We all know how quickly the weather can turn volatile here on the Gulf Coast, but Betcha Didn’t Know, lightning is one of the most dangerous killers in our neck of the woods. This week is National Lightning Safety Awareness week, and here are some facts about lightning we “betcha didn’t know” and some tips to keep you and your family safe this summer storm season.
While the flashes we see as a result of a lightning strike travel at the speed of light (670,000,000 mph) an actual lightning strike travels at a comparatively gentile 270,000 mph. This means it would take about 55 minutes to travel to the moon, or around 1.5 seconds to get from London to Bristol.
When lightning strikes sand or sandy soil, it fuses together the grains to create a small glass-like tube known as a fulgurite. (Remember the movie Sweet Home Alabama?) They are not only prized by collectors, they are also of great scientific value in demonstrating past occurrence of lightning storms.
While the intensity of a lightning strike can make them appear as thick bolts across the sky, the actual width of a lightning bolt is only about 2-3 cm. That’s about the width of your thumb. The average length of a lightning bolt is about 2-3 miles. The charge carried down this small channel is so intense that the temperature of the lightning reaches 30,000 °C, about five times hotter than the surface of the Sun.
It’s a myth that lightning never strikes the same place twice. Not only that, but some places (like tall buildings or areas with particularly conducive topography) can see dozens or even hundreds of lightning strikes. For instance, the Empire State Building is reportedly struck by lightning roughly 23 times per year.
Not only does it strike the same places more than once, but also a single lightning bolt can strike more than one place at the same time. Double—or even triple—lightning strikes are not uncommon.
According to the NWS Storm Data, over the last 30 years (1989-2018) the U.S. has averaged 43 reported lightning fatalities per year. Only about 10% of people who are struck by lightning are killed, leaving 90% with various degrees of disability.
National Lightning Safety Awareness week was started in 2001 to call attention to this underrated killer. Since then, U.S. lightning fatalities have dropped from about 50 per year to about 30. This reduction in fatalities is largely due to greater awareness of the lightning danger, and people seeking safety when thunderstorms threaten.
Although the odds of being struck by lightning in a given year are only around 1 in 500,000, some factors can put you at greater risk. Florida is considered the “lightning capital” of the country, with more than 2,000 lightning injuries over the past 50 years.
There are ways to protect yourself even if you are caught outdoors when lightning is close by.
If you are caught outdoors when lightning is present:
• Immediately get out of the water and get as far away from it as possible.
• When thunder roars, go indoors. Find a safe, enclosed shelter.
• The main lightning safety guide is the 30-30 rule. After you see lightning, start counting to 30. If you hear thunder before you reach 30, go indoors. Suspend activities for at least 30 minutes after the last clap of thunder.
• If no shelter is available, crouch low, with as little of your body touching the ground as possible. Lightning causes electric currents along the top of the ground that can be deadly over 100 feet away.
• Stay away from concrete floors or walls. Lightning can travel through any metal wires or bars in concrete walls or flooring.
• Although you should move into a non-concrete structure if possible, being indoors does not automatically protect you from lightning. In fact, about one-third of lightning-strike injuries occur indoors.
• While being in an enclosed car is not as safe as being inside a building, it is a safer option than staying outside. Common myths regarding cars and lightning is that the rubber from the tires or the gasket around the windshield keep you safe, but that’s not necessarily true.
Don’t assume you are safe just because you are indoors. Here’s some things you need to know about lightning inside a structure:
• Avoid water during a thunderstorm. Lightning can travel through plumbing.
• Avoid electronic equipment of all types. Lightning can travel through electrical systems and radio and television reception systems.
• Avoid corded phones. However, cordless or cellular phones are safe to use during a storm.
• Stay away from windows and doors, and stay away from porches.
Remember, NO PLACE outside is safe when thunderstorms are in the area! If you hear thunder, lightning is close enough to strike you. Seek shelter and take the appropriate precautions to keep yourself and your family safe this summer. And although lightning may be beautiful, so is life. So stay inside with a cocktail instead….besides….with the crazy weather we have here, the storm will be over before you know it.