It may come as shocking news to some, but over the past 30 years lightning has killed more people in the United States than tornadoes, hurricanes, cold, blizzard or wind – about 58 per year, according to the National Weather Service.
Estimates of injuries vary: Some sources say that for each lightning death, five more people are injured, while others surmise injuries may outnumber deaths by 12 to 1.
Summer is when most lightning strikes happen.
“Right now we’re looking at heating-of-the-day thunderstorms,” said Marlene Mickelson, a forecaster with the National Weather Service in Memphis. “They start building up around noon, and by mid-afternoon they can be fairly powerful. From about 4 to 8 p.m. is a particularly dangerous time for them.”
The absence of rain is no indication that lightning isn’t a danger.
“Lightning often strikes outside the area of rain a storm is producing,” Mickelson said. “It can hit up to 10 miles from the storm’s center.”
Fortunately, that 10-mile reach is about how far thunder is usually audible, she said, “so anytime you hear thunder, lightning can be a threat.”
The biggest rule is, if you hear thunder, get inside either a substantial building or a metal-topped vehicle. Brendix Glasgow, district forester with the Mississippi Forestry Commission, oversees many people doing outdoor work.
“Anytime they see a thunderstorm, they’re supposed to get in their trucks,” he said. Radios and cell phones supplement with weather reports what workers can see in dense forest canopy.
While the wire-and-plumbing “cage” in a house makes it one of the best shelters against lightning, the bolts can occasionally enter a building.
“We were sitting out on the porch (Thursday), and it didn’t seem that close,” said Stacy Lewis, who, as the Forestry Commission’s assistant district forester, has never been struck by lightning despite his time outdoors. “My oldest daughter was inside on the computer. She came out and said, ‘I just got struck by lightning. I was holding the mouse, and I got tingled.’”
Anna Jordan Lewis, 15, wasn’t hurt by the shock, but the lightning jumped what Stacy Lewis called “a high-dollar surge protector,” frying the family’s stereo, computer, phone system and satellite TV wiring.
“The phone that sits by our bed was burned on the bottom,” Stacy Lewis said. “The electrical part of the wiring is good, but we’ll have to have the phone line, the TV line and the DSL checked out.”
Treating a vicitm
Dr. Joe Johnsey, an emergency-medicine physician at North Mississippi Medical Center, treated his last lightning-injured patient several years ago, but he remains aware of the problems lightning can create.
“Anything can happen from nothing to sudden death, with anything between,” he said. “The big things are thermal burns and arrhythmias. People have burst ears drums; they have renal failure from tissue burns.”
A 1994 study indicated more than half of lightning-strike victims suffer memory loss, and more than a third experience symptoms as varied as sleep disturbance, fatigue and phobias.
If lightning does injure someone near you, Johnsey said, “The basics are first: make sure they are breathing, look for seizures. Then get them medical attention.”
Errol Castens / Daily Journal Oxford Bureau