Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Do You Know What to Do in a Thunderstorm?

This past weekend, a young man was struck by lightning and died later in hospital. The man and his girlfriend were cycling and, according to news reports, they sought shelter under a tree when the storm passed over them.

We've all heard that you aren't supposed to be near a tree during storms, so why do so many of us do that - take shelter under one? It just seems logical to do so. It's raining, it's windy, and trees offer physical protection.

We don't see the lightning - it's not an immediate danger - so it's easy to forget about, I guess. Sadly, this ends up resulting in tragedy several times a year.

So, what should you do when you're caught in a storm and going into a safe building isn't an option?

The American National Weather Service has a webpage devoted to thunderstorm safety. Here are some of the tips if you are caught where there are no safe places to go:

Being stranded outdoors when lightning is striking nearby is a harrowing experience. Your first and only truly safe choice is to get to a safe building or vehicle. If you are campingclimbing, on a motorcycle or bicycleboatingscuba diving, or enjoying other outdoor activities and cannot get to a safe vehicle or building, follow these last resort tips. They will not prevent you from being struck by lightning, but may slightly lessen the odds.
These actions may slightly reduce your risk of being struck by lightning:
  • If camping, hiking, etc., far from a safe vehicle or building, avoid open fields, the top of a hill or a ridge top.
  • Stay away from tall, isolated trees or other tall objects. If you are in a forest, stay near a lower stand of trees.
  • If you are camping in an open area, set up camp in a valley, ravine or other low area. Remember, a tent offers NO protection from lighting.
  • Stay away from water, wet items (such as ropes) and metal objects (such as fences and poles). Water and metal are excellent conductors of electricity. The current from a lightning flash will easily travel for long distances (See Figure 2 below).

People often ask if it is safe to take refuge in a car or truck. According to the NWS, the answer is yes, depending on the vehicle:

safe vehicle is any fully enclosed metal-topped vehicle such as a hard-topped car, minivan, bus, truck, etc. While inside a safe vehicle, do not use electronic devices such as radio communications during a thunderstorm. If you drive into a thunderstorm, slow down and use extra caution. If possible, pull off the road into a safe area. Do not leave the vehicle during a thunderstorm. 
Unsafe vehicles include convertibles, golf carts, riding mowers, open cab construction equipment and boats without cabins.

And what if you are inside? Are you still in danger?

If you are in a safe building, one with wiring and plumbing, then you are generally out of danger when it comes to lightning strikes. You still need to take some precautions because you aren't 100% safe, but chances of being injured are low.

First, stay away from windows. It can be tempting to stand at a patio door and watch the lightning dance across the sky, but being by a window has a few dangers. A serious storm could dislodge items and send debris flying through the air, which could break windows. Trees could fall as well, so stay away from anything that could break.

It is also recommended that you:

  • Stay off the phone
  • Shut off (unplug if possible) computers, televisions, and other sensitive electronic equipment
  • Don't take a shower or bath

While the third directive may sound odd, the reasoning there is if your building is struck by lightning, an electric current could be sent through the metal plumbing.

Do you know anyone who has been hit by lightning? My youngest son had a close call one summer; he was about 15 at the time, I think. He was out on a sailboat on what had been a beautiful day. There were no signs of storms to come when, out of the blue, a thunderstorm rolled over them before they had time to get to shore.

According to my son, there were lightening strikes that hit the water not far from the sailboat. He didn't know what to do and - thankfully - the storm rolled away as quickly as it had come in. Sailing isn't one of his favourite past times now.

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