EMA director witnesses first-hand the dangers of lightning

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, July 10, 2002

Features Editor

Larry Davis probably knows more about the dangers of lightning than the average citizen.

Part of that knowledge comes as a result of his job as coordinator of the Pike County Emergency Management Agency. However, it’s his first-hand knowledge that makes him all too aware of the serious and, too often, deadly consequences of the most dangerous weather hazard that many people encounter each year.

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Davis was an eyewitness to a lightning strike that killed a Troy State College student

and casual friend in 1961.

"We had been in basic training for the Alabama National Guard at the same time and had entered Troy State at the same time," Davis said, explaining how he knew the victim. "That day it was raining and I

was sitting in my car in the parking lot next to what used to be the student center. He and another student were crossing the street going to the dorm next to the parking lot."

One of the students was wearing a trench coat and the other didn’t have on any kind of protective clothing. The student without the rain coat ran on ahead, but the other stopped for a minute to say hello to Davis.

"He walked off behind the car and all I saw was the flash from the lightning strike," Davis said."I wasn’t looking back at him. I just saw the flash."

Davis stumbled from the car and went to the fallen student.

"Several people came running up and we turned him over," Davis said. "His clothing just crumbled. It was like scorched paper. His body was like jelly. Someone tried to resuscitate him, but I think we all knew there wasn’t any hope for him."

Davis said the young man was still clutching his books.

"He never knew what hit him," Davis said. "The lightning must have run through his body and out his foot. His foot was on the edge of the hole the lightning knocked in the concrete when it went out his foot. The hole was about five inches in diameter and about two inches deep. I’d never seen anything like it."

The death of a young Troy man Monday as a result of a lightning strike brought that experience back to Davis and made him keenly aware of the importance of educating the public about the dangers of lightning, so, hopefully, there will never be another story of such a tragedy again in this area.

Davis said although it is possible to do everything right and still be injured by a lightning strike, knowing

the recommendations for lightning safety greatly lessens one’s chances of being a victim.

Davis said no warnings or forecasts are typically issued for lightning, which ranks second to floods in the number of deaths annually.

According to the National Lightning Detection Network (LNDN),

each year about 100 people are killed and more than 500 are injured by lightning. The LNDN reports an average of 21,746,000 cloud-to-ground flashes per year.

Davis said lightning occurs in the United States every day in summer and almost every day the rest of the year. Since lightning strikes the ground in such large numbers and is so widespread, it is not possible to warn each person of every flash.

"That’s the reason lightning is considered such a dangerous weather hazard," Davis said.

Even though scientific understanding of lightning has increased over the years, no consistent match between basic science and applications to safety have been made.

"At one time, it was recommend that a person drop to their knees if caught outside in a lightning storm" Davis said. "Other recommendations were to lie flat on the ground. Now, the recommendation is to squat on the balls of your feet so that you have as little contact with the ground as possible."

The best way to stay safe during a lightning storm or when lightning is present is to follow the the recommendations for lightning safety, Davis said. Individuals are ultimately responsible for their personal safety and adults must take responsibility for the safety of children.