Ted Stillwell: Lightning is pretty but dangerous

Staff Writer
The Examiner
The Examiner

Zeus, the Greek god of lightning and thunder must like hot, humid weather because there are more lightning strikes in hot and humid July across the United States than any other month, and so far this year we are running about average.

My brother-in-law Bob Farris’ mother was panic stricken every time the lightning walked about, and justifiably so. She had a bolt of lightning pass through the middle of the room right in front of her nose one time.

There are about 25 million lightning strikes in the United States every year, and in reality there is really no safe place to be. While Missouri and Kansas have more than their fair share, we really live in a fairly safe neighborhood – statistically speaking. Florida leads the pack with the most strikes and the most people killed by a lightning bolt. There are square-mile sections in Florida that get struck more than 33 times per year.

The odds of being struck over your lifetime in our neighborhood are one in 12,000, according to John Jensenius, of the National Weather Service.

If you are caught outside during a lightning storm, under a tree is one of the worst places to be. Lying flat on the ground won’t help much either, as that just gives the ground charge a larger target. So, what is a ground charge? As a lightning bolt shoots out of the clouds heading for the ground, several streamers of the opposite charge reach up from the ground to meet it – that’s a ground charge.

So, where should you be? Well, not sitting in a boat fishing, that’s for sure. In fact, fishing and water sports are the most dangerous activities during a storm, because they account for about half of all deaths by lightning. Football, soccer, baseball and golf follow closely behind.

Men are more likely to get struck than women, and people out having a good time are more likely to be struck than those who are going about their daily routines. As a result, most injuries to people fall on the “wild weekends.”

The worst ages for men are from 20 to 29, but the target age for lightning strikes is also tragically high for children and young women between 10 and 19.

“There is a decline in death from lightning when people are in their 30s, which may have something to do with being parents and taking more precautions, because of their small children,” Jensenius said. “The odds go back up, though, after the young’ns fly the coop.”

The best place to be is probably at home or at the office working. A good, solid structure with plumbing and electrical wiring surrounding you is a better target for the lightning, because the wires and pipes will feed off the electrical charge and give the lightning someplace to go besides the top of your head.

So, the experts will tell you to hang up the phone, skip the shower and stay clear of any electrical wall outlets, because the lightning could exit from any one of those.

If you can hear the thunder, even if it sounds far away, beware because lightning has been known to reach out as far as ten miles and strike out of a clear blue sky.

Reference: National Weather Service.

Reach Ted W. Stillwell at Ted@blueandgrey.com or 816-896-3592.