Lightning: the underrated killer

Published 12:00 am Thursday, February 21, 2002

Features Editor

In a typical year, lightning will strike the United State more than 21 million times and will claim more victims than tornadoes or hurricanes.

Larry Davis, Pike County emergency management director, said those are facts of which the general population may not be aware, but are indicative of the danger of lightning.

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"Lighting is called the ‘underrated killer’ because it doesn’t usually get headline attention," he said. "Lightning was responsible for three deaths and 19 injuries in Alabama in 2001. Since 1990, 19 people have been killed in Alabama by lightning and 216 have been injured."

The average number of deaths, nationally, from lightning is 100 with an additional 500 injuries.

"Lightning is very dangerous and we should take it seriously," Davis said. "Every thunderstorm contains lightning and, therefore, every thunderstorm is a potential killer. The electrical charge in a thunderstorm may reach 100 million volts and that charge is looking for a path of least resistance to complete the circuit. That could be a person, a tree or an object out in the open."

Davis said there are rules of safety and common sense that can provide protection from lightning.

"We know some of the ‘covers’ to take during a lightning and thunderstorm," he said. "Almost everyone knows not to stand under a tree or utility pole and to stay away from windows and not to use electrical appliances, but there are other don’ts that everyone should be aware of."

Davis said talking on the telephone during a lightning and/or thunderstorm can be dangerous.

"You should never use a telephone during a storm except in case of an emergency," he said. "Several people are killed by lightning each year while talking on the telephone. Lightning can run in on a telephone, so stay away from them. A cell phone has no electrical lines so they are alright to use."

Fireplaces, metal pipes and any electrical appliance can conduct electricity.

"We might not think about sinks and bathtubs, but you want to say away from them, too," Davis said. "Never take a bath or shower during a thunderstorm."

Most golfers know they need to seek shelter when a thunderstorm comes up while they are on the golf course because their metal clubs act just like lightning rods. But, many of them may not know that the metal cleats on their golf shoes will attract lightning, too."

Wire fence lines are dangerous, because, if struck, the lightning will run along the wires. Chain link fences are also dangerous.

"That’s one reason recreation departments monitor the weather so closely when there is threatening weather," Davis said. "Ball parks have a lot of metal and so extra precautions are taken to keep players and spectators safe."

Often people are caught out in the open during severe thunderstorms and Davis said the best protection is to squat down on the ball of one’s feet.

"Don’t lie down," he said. "You want the smallest part of your body touching the ground. And, rubber-soled shoes could improve your chances because rubber is not a good conductor of electricity."

The best protection from lightning is knowledge that it is a dangerous and to treat it with the utmost respect.

"Don’t take any chances," Davis said. "Dashing out into a lightning storm is not worth the risk involved. When lightning is evident, stay inside and stay safe."