Lightning has killed two people in Florida this year, including one, a motorcyclist, near Daytona Beach. Experts offer advice on how to keep safe.
The death of a Florida man after a lightning strike last week is a grim reminder of how dangerous lightning can be, especially in a state beset with regular thunderstorms and lightning.
The 24-year-old Clearwater man succumbed to his injuries after being struck by lightning on Clearwater Beach. His death is the second lightning-related death in Florida this year and the 10th in the nation.
Florida’s first lightning victim this year was Benjamin Austin Lee, struck by a bolt that seared through his helmet on June 9 as he was riding a motorcycle on Interstate 95 near Daytona Beach.
With lightning nearly a daily fact of life in the summer in Florida, it’s something Floridians should be more aware of and planning for, said John Jensenius with the National Lightning Safety Council and a retired National Weather Service lightning specialist.
Central Florida is considered the “Lightning Capital” of the United States. On average, lightning is responsible for more weather-related deaths in Florida than all other weather hazards combined, and Florida has the highest number of lightning casualties of all 50 states.
Whether you’re a resident or a visitor, here are things you need to know:
Q. What should you know about being prepared?
If you hear thunder, go indoors, said Jensenius. If people hear thunder, he said, “they’re within striking distance.”
Always be aware of the weather if you’re going to be outside for an extended period, he said. Check the forecast if you’re going to be outside and always have a plan for seeking shelter.
Inside a shelter, stay away from all electrical appliances, lighting, electric sockets and plumbing. If no secure shelter is available, a vehicle is a potential second choice, but avoid touching the steering wheel, ignition or radio. The metal is what makes the car or truck safe, not its rubber tires.
As a last resort, if you’re trapped with no shelter option, avoid open fields and beaches, trees, and light poles. Avoid metal fences and bleachers and unprotected open building such as pavilions.
Q. How long should you wait after a storm?
At least 30 minutes after you hear thunder or see lightning, Jensenius said. “Lightning can strike from the back side of a storm just as easily as the front side,” he said. And lightning can strike up to 10 miles away.
Often, if people are in a store, they’ll wait for the heavy rain to stop and then make a mad dash for the car, he said. “In reality, it’s not the rain that’s going to kill you, it’s the lightning that will kill you. You should plan those activities for a time of the day when thunderstorms are less likely.”
Q.Where does lightning rank among other weather phenomenon for deaths and injuries?
Lightning is the number two storm-related killer in the United States, behind flooding. Lightning kills more people than hurricanes or tornadoes on average. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration estimates several hundred people are injured by lightning each year. Only about 10% of all those struck by lightning die. Among the 90% who survive, many suffer lifelong neurological symptoms.
Q. What are the odds of being struck by lightning?
The average annual per capita strike rate in the United States is around 1 in 600,000. However, the National Weather Service said that doesn’t mean the odds are 1 in 600,000. It depends on where a person lives and how much time they spend outside. If you live in Florida, your chances are higher than most other parts of the country.
Q. How many deaths have there been in Florida?
More than 450 since 1959, more than double the next closest state, Texas.
Q. How many thunderstorm days are there in Central Florida each year?
Between 70 and 90, according to the weather service. More than 90 percent of the lightning occurs from May through October, between the hours of noon and midnight.
Q. Who is struck most often?
From 2006 through 2018, 396 people were struck and killed by lightning in the United States, according to a NOAA report. Almost two-thirds of those were people enjoying outdoor leisure activities, including 38 fishermen, 23 beach deaths and 19 camping deaths.
Q. Are there industries that have worked to become more weather aware?
Yes, including amateur and professional sports and the aviation industry.
Daytona Beach International Airport, for example, has “a five-mile policy” for lightning, said Jay Cassens, business development manager for the airport.
If the airport’s lightning detection device, mounted on top of the terminal roof, detects lightning within five miles of the airport an alert is sent to all the airport tenants.
“We do ground handling for Delta and we will not allow our people to go out there if it’s within five miles,” he said. And if there are thunderstorms in the area or directly over the airfield “the airplanes will not fly until that thunderstorm is past.” That’s not only for lightning, but also for concerns about wind shear. That sometimes leaves passengers sitting in the jet on the tarmac until its safe for ground crews to guide the plane and hook up the ramp.
Jensenius said there are two concerns when lightning nears an airport.
“The first and most important is for the ground crews that direct the planes and put the jet bridge in place, and then also baggage handlers,” he said. “A secondary concern is that when stepping from the plane to the jet bridge, a person is a connection between the two. If the plane or jet bridge are struck, someone stepping between the two could be killed or injured.”
NASCAR and Daytona International Speedway also are more closely monitoring lightning, stopping track activities if lightning is detected within eight miles and waiting until 30 minutes after the last strike to resume activities.
Q. How does lightning strike victims?
In one of several ways, including a direct strike, a side flash, a ground current or conduction, according to the Lightning Safety Institute. The current moving through the body is particularly dangerous because it affects cardiovascular and/or nervous systems.
A side flash occurs when lightning strikes a tall object near a person and a portion of the current can jump from the object to the victim. That can happen when a person seeks shelter under a tree for example.
Ground current causes most lightning deaths and injuries. It occurs when the lighting enters the body at the point closest to a lightning strike, travels through the body, then leaves at the contact point farthest from the initial strike.
Conduction occurs when lightning travels through wires and other metal surfaces and is the cause of most indoor lightning casualties. Anyone in contact with metal wires or surfaces or plumbing is at risk.