Lightning Safety: What to Do During a Storm
How to avoid getting zapped, no matter where you are
Thunderstorms were rolling in off the Atlantic in May 2000 when Michael Utley, playing in a charity golf tournament on Pocasset Golf Course on Cape Cod, dropped the flag in the hole and began to walk off the green.
He woke up 38 days later.
He had been struck by lightning while his golf partners, just a few yards away, escaped unscathed. As Utley later learned, his heart stopped three times that afternoon, and he passed in and out of a coma.
Now he walks and still plays golf. But not like before. “I still have holes in my memory,” he says. “My balance is fried. My ankles are bone on bone because lightning fried the cartilage in the ankles, so I walk a lot like Lurch.” In addition, he concedes, he has become unpredictably short-tempered.
Utley, who started the public safety group and website struckbylightning.org, is one of many victims of lightning strikes. An average 33 people died from lightning strikes in the United States between 2004 and 2013. Nearly 10 times that many survived. But many, like Utley, suffer lingering disabilities, including concussion, depression, burns and memory loss.
When lightning strikes
Lightning strikes land in the United States an average of 22 million times a year, causing awe and sometimes fear. It may look like lightning jumps out of a cloud, but it’s more complicated than that. As a high charge of electricity descends from a storm and nears the ground, “streamers”of the opposite charge rise from nearby objects to meet it. The resulting discharge may form a lightning bolt like a single- or many-tined pitchfork that heats the surrounding air to 50,000 degrees Fahrenheit. The super-heated air expands rapidly and causes thunder.
Over the years many false ideas have grown up about lightning, some of which could get you into trouble. These myths include:
Lightning never strikes the same place twice. Wrong! Tall objects get blasted all the time. The Empire State Building is struck an average 100 times a year, according to the National Weather Service (NWS).
If it’s not raining or cloudy, there’s no chance of lightning. In fact, a “bolt from the blue” can strike more than 10 miles from a thunderstorm, says the NWS.
Rubber tires insulate vehicles from the ground, protecting passengers. Vehicles are indeed one of the safest places during a storm, but not because of the tires. It’s because the steel frame provides a conductive shield that guides a lightning strike away from you and into the ground. (Although rubber is an effective insulator in normal circumstances, the average lightning bolt with 50,000 degrees F and 100 million volts of electric potential can burn right through rubber tires.) Bicycles, motorcycles, and ATVs provide no protection.
The “lightning crouch”—squatting low with only your toes and the balls of your feet touching the ground—will protect you if you’re outdoors. In fact, the NWS no longer recommends the crouch. Better to use your energy getting inside.
Lightning strikes land in every state, but certain states get more of a pummeling. The incidence of strikes is 10 times more frequent in locales near the Gulf than in the northern states, for example. More people by far are killed by lightning in Florida than any other state.
Related: How Much Do You Know About Hurricanes?
Although some people are struck by a lightning bolt, more are killed or injured when a bolt hits the ground. When it does, the current traveling along the surface can affect an area many yards from the lightning strike. It can also snake along metal fences, so watch out for those.
A few people are even hurt by the streamers that rise to greet the descending lightning bolt. If a streamer runs through your body, your hair may stand on end and you may hear a sizzle like frying bacon.
Protecting yourself from lightning
If you live in an old house, consult with an electrician to make sure your home is grounded and has a lightning protection system (LPS). Everyone should also have surge protection to protect their electronic equipment.
In addition, ask your electrician to make sure your gas system and metal piping is bonded to a grounding electrode. Otherwise a lightning strike that hits the home could rupture your gas lines and cause an explosion.
Here are some pointers from the National Weather Service on staying safe during a storm:
Plan ahead to avoid outdoor activities when thunderstorms are forecast.
The fact is, you are not safe anywhere outdoors during a lightning storm.
Keep an eye and ear to the sky. If you hear thunder, take shelter in a vehicle or substantial building. (Gazebos and rain shelters don’t provide protection from lightning.) Most people who are killed by lightning waited too long to take shelter or emerged when the storm, but not the possibility of lightning, had passed. “How often are you not within running distance of a house or a car?”asks Utley. “Very rarely. [The people who are hit] just didn’t go fast enough. They didn’t pay attention to the thunder.”
If you’re in a car, roll up the windows and close the doors. Lean away from the door, keep your hands in your lap and don’t fiddle with keys in the ignition, the steering wheel, or other potential conductors of a lightning strike.
If you’re in a house, avoid conductors (such as water, metal pipes and other objects that conduct electricity). That means don’t stand at the sink doing dishes, don't take a bath or shower and don’t touch light switches or your landline phone. In addition, avoid working on your computer unless it’s unplugged (a good idea anyway to protect it from a surge of current). Close the windows and stay away from them, too.
“Avoid physical contact with anything that might become a conductor,”says Richard Kithil, consultant and president of the National Lightning Safety Institute. “Sit in a chair and enjoy the storm.”
If you’re outside with no shelter
If you’re caught outdoors without a chance of reaching a building or vehicle, “you’re in a tough spot,” Kithil acknowledges. But you can better your odds.
Avoid open areas. If you’re on a lake, motor or paddle to shore. If you’re hiking in the mountains, get off peaks and ridges and down below the treeline. A ground strike may be fatal if it hits you directly, and direct strikes are most likely in open country.
Stand away from any isolated tall tree or another potential conduit. A side flash can occur if you are huddled next to an object such as a big tree or cliff. The electrical charge can jump from the object to you and then run to the ground.
In a group, spread out so that if anyone is injured, others can give aid, including CPR. People struck by lightning do not have a charge, so act quickly if someone is hurt.
Finally, if you are stuck in the open and there’s no alternative, do the lightning crouch, says Kithil. “If you are hopelessly isolated, the only thing you can do — and it may not do any good at all — is to crouch down and make yourself the lowest possible target.”