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Survival / May 21, 2017

How to not get struck by lightning

Written by: Brad Shannon

Each year, lighting strikes about 1.4 billion times around the world—that’s 44 times every second. Twenty-five million of those strikes land in the U.S., resulting in an average of about 47 deaths a year (hundreds more are injured).

That’s a pretty low death/strike ratio, but lightning remains one of planet’s deadliest weather events. So I called up three of our nation’s foremost experts to find out how to stay alive in a storm.

Check the weather. Seriously.

The easiest way to avoid death by lighting? Stay away from the stuff.

“Check the forecast,” says John Jensenius, a lightning safety specialist with the National Weather Service. “Know what you might be getting into. Check the radar. Don’t be caught in a situation that is or can become dangerous.”

Develop an understanding of the local weather and plan accordingly. If storms are in the forecast, re-evaluate your need to go out at all.


Take shelter early

Deadly lightning strikes aren’t always produced by big, intimidating storms.

“A lot of storms that cause casualties don’t produce much lighting,” says Steve Hodanish, a senior meteorologist for the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Association. “A flash here or there, but not big storms with lightning all over the place. Many injuries come from the first flash of the storm, when it might not be raining much, if at all.”

As a result, Hodanish says, many of the people killed or injured by lightning each year are found near safe shelter. Don’t be cavalier—seek shelter as soon as the weather looks threatening.


Choose your shelter carefully

In a lightning storm, your best shelter is a building with a lot of plumbing and electrical wiring. This doesn’t include rain or picnic shelters—lightning can strike you through these or can hit the shelter and then spread along the ground beneath it.

A car can also serve as a safe shelter, but only with the windows rolled up. If it gets hot and stuffy start the engine and run the air conditioning.

Never, seek shelter under a tree, cautions Jennifer Hillmann of the Colorado Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management. Of the 38 U.S. deaths from lightning strikes in 2016, seven were people who took cover under a tree.

Strikes often hit tall objects, but not always. Once it hits the ground, it spreads out along the ground surface, where it can still kill or injure. In fact, most people aren’t struck directly but are exposed to ground current.

If you’re out and a storm is approaching with no shelter nearby, avoid ridgelines and open areas as well as tall, isolated objects (like trees). If you’re camping in the back country, Hillmann advises, set your tent up in a low-lying area away from isolated trees, but not in a place where there’s a flash flooding risk.

Never, ever, take shelter under or around a tree in a thundertorm.

A car makes a pretty good storm shelter, but only if the windows are closed.

No shelter? Improve your odds.

If you do get caught out in a storm, says Hodanish, “You’re SOL. There’s nothing you can do.”

He’s serious.

“The best thing to do with a group, if you’re in the wilderness, with no safe shelter nearby, is separate. Get away from one another,” he says. “That way, if someone is struck, the others can help.”

Jensenius suggests putting at least 100 feet between each person. While that may increase the overall chance of someone being struck, it also ensures that someone will be able to help anyone injured.

Some experts, including Hodanish, advise getting as low as possible, crouched down on the balls of your feet, away from trees, fences, and water. Others disagree.

“You only really reduce yourself to the size of a child,” says Jensenius. “It’s not providing much in the way of safety. You may be better off running to safety. When running, your body has less contact with the ground. And you’re (hopefully) on the way to safety.


Stay put

If you’ve sought shelter, don’t leave it too soon. Wait 30 minutes after the last thunder or lightning before going back outside. If the wind is blowing and rain is falling and you’re in a safe place, you may not hear thunder that indicates the threat has not yet passed.

If someone is struck by lightning, they often need CPR. Check for pulse and breathing and call 911 or send for help as quickly as possible. Being up to date on your CPR training and first aid certification is always a good idea.

Do you have questions or comments about this piece? Send them to [email protected]

about the author

Brad Shannon

Brad Shannon is a cyclist, runner, triathlete; soccer coach, player and referee; gear / gadget lover; and storyteller. He’s a fan of dogs and the weather and craft beer scene in northern Colorado. His current favorite item is his 3D-printed Inconel bottle opener.

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