The odds of getting struck by lightning are 1 in 1.9 million, which is why most people do not deem it important to worry about it. However, even with those long odds, people still do get hit by lightning. It is important to learn how to protect your family, pets, and property in the event of a thunderstorm.

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Lightning info

What is lightning

Lightning is a natural electrostatic discharge which happens within clouds, between clouds, or between a cloud and ground. For lightning to appear, there have to be regions of cold air (which carry ice crystals), and warm air (which carry water droplets). During a storm, these crystals and droplets bump into each other, and their rubbing makes static charges in the cloud. The top of these electrically charged clouds becomes positive, while at the bottom they remain negatively charged. At the beginning of the development, air acts as an insulator between positive and negative charges, but when they build up enough, the cloud lets out energy and searches for a closest and easiest path to a place of opposite energy.

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How dangerous is lightning?

In the United States, lightning is a concern because it is a major cause of storm related deaths. The consequence of a lightning strike can be cardiac arrest, or more frequently different types of injuries, such as eye damage, paralysis, fractures, ear ringing, loss of hearing, loss of consciousness, and burns. According to the National Weather Service, in the period from 1986 to 2015, there were about 48 lightning strike incidents each year. Only about ten percent of those who are struck by lightning are killed, while 90% suffer various types of disabilities. As reported by survivors, long-term effects of getting struck by lightning include memory loss, personality changes, irreparable nerve damage, chronic pain or headaches, difficulty sleeping and dizziness.

To prevent a lightning-related incident, you should learn how to behave before, during, and after the storm and follow recommendations and advice from relevant authorities.

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Where can lightning strike?

Most lightning bolts occur within a thunderstorm, but a small percentage can reach miles from the storm center and any rainfall. There is also “a bolt from the blue” which is lightning that appears to come from the blue sky. It is actually lightning that traveled a large distance from a storm cloud.

Lightning usually strikes the tallest object in the area because it is the easiest path for current to take. Where a lightning bolt will strike depends on height, the shape of the object, and isolation. The belief that structures with metal or objects made of metal attract lightning is a myth. For example, mountains get struck by lightning many times per year. However, metal is a conductor, which is why you should stay away from metal objects in your home and car in the midst of a thunderstorm.

Lightning can strike the same place twice. It can even be hit multiple times, especially if it is a tall pointy object, such as Empire State Building, which gets hit by lightning nearly 100 times per year.

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How can you tell how far away a storm is?

To calculate how far away a storm is, we use the flash-to-bang rule. This rule is based on the properties of light and sound, and the fact that it takes sound waves five seconds to travel one mile. You should count the seconds between the flash of lightning and sound of thunder. Then, divide that number by 5. The result you get is an estimate of the distance from you to where the lightning hit in miles. If you are within 6 miles of lightning flashes, you should seek shelter immediately.

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Preparing before a storm

Before a storm make sure you:

  • Have a family plan for what to do in case of an emergency.
  • Teach your children how to respond in an emergency.
  • Get trained in first aid and know how to respond in
  • Build an emergency kit (it should contain water, non-perishable food, a flashlight, radio, extra batteries, first aid kit, medications, hygiene items, personal documents, cell phone, cash and an emergency contact).
  • Secure household objects that could blow away or cause damage.
  • Remove any dead or rotting trees from your yard.
  • Shutter windows and secure doors.
  • Unplug any electronic devices.

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What to do during a storm

At home

“When thunder roars, go indoors!” The home provides a great deal of safety in the event of a thunderstorm. However, one-third of lightning injuries happen indoors. There are three main ways that lightning has to enter a building: through a direct strike, through wires, or via pipes that extend outside the building and through the ground. Once it reaches the structure, the current from a lightning strike can travel through electrical lines, plumbing, and radio or TV reception systems. That is why you should NOT:

  • Use corded phones (cell phones are okay to use)
  • Use computers, game systems, stoves, or TVs
  • Bathe, shower, or wash dishes
  • Sit on concrete floors or lean against concrete walls

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Always plan your outside activities according to the weather forecast. If a thunderstorm approaches and you find yourself outside, stop all activities (especially if in or near water), and seek shelter. The best shelter is a substantial building with windows and doors closed, or a hard-topped vehicle with windows closed (sheds, tents, baseball dugouts, etc. are not proper shelters). If there is no shelter available, seek lower elevation areas far away from stand-alone trees, tall objects, electrical poles, and bodies of water. If you are in the group, try to spread out.

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In a car

The steel frame of a hard-topped vehicle provides protection, making a Faraday cage. Faraday cages work on a principle that electric fields cannot exist within a conductor; thus all charge remains on the surface. This means that you will be safe inside of a vehicle, provided that you are not touching any metal. If you find yourself driving during thunderstorms, stop the car away from any trees, and stay in your vehicle. Turn on the emergency flashers and keep windows closed until the storm passes. Do not use any electronic devices.

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With pets

In the event of a thunderstorm, do not leave your pet outdoors or chained to a tree. Doghouses do not provide a safe shelter. Some animals, especially dogs, are afraid of the sound of thunder, and they manifest this anxiety often by trying to escape. Before the storm, make sure that your gates and fences are secure and that your pet cannot escape through them. During the storm, put your dog in an enclosed and dark area and try to distract it. Also, remove any metal collars or leashes and replace them with plastic or cloth.

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What to do after lightning strikes?

Power outages, fire, individuals struck by lightning

After lighting strikes, you should assess your immediate environment. First, you should provide help to anyone that was struck by lightning, and then children, elderly, and disabled individuals. Contrary to popular belief, an individual struck by lightning does not carry any electrical charge, and it is completely safe for you to touch them. If they give no signs of breathing or heart rhythm, you should begin resuscitation and CPR. Check for burns where the lightning has entered and left the body, and do not move a seriously injured person unless they are in immediate danger.

Only later, you should report fallen trees, flooded streets, or damaged public utilities to authorities.

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Calling for help

Use the telephone only for emergency situations. A lot of people use their phones in disaster situations, which can overwhelm the lines and towers, and it is important for emergency calls to get through. If somebody in your area has sustained injuries from a lightning strike, dial 911.

You can register your family on the American Red Cross Safe and Well website or by dialing the number 1-866-GET-INFO to let your family and friends know you are safe.

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Clean up

Always stay away from downed power lines. Report them to the power company, and also report any ruptured gas lines, structural damages to your home, or downed electrical lines to emergency services. When you are cleaning your home after a thunderstorm, make sure to use protection and be careful.

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Lightning safety information

Keep these things in mind:

  • No place outside is safe during a thunderstorm.
  • Immediately try to look for a sturdy shelter.
  • Stay in shelter at least 30 minutes after you hear the last sound of thunder or see the last flash of lightning.
  • Stay away from trees.
  • Do not lay on the ground.

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Additional Resources

If anybody close to you has been struck by lightning, there are resources online that can help you and the survivor understand what happened. There are also survivors support groups that can provide help and guidance.

Lightning Safety Guide and Information