There are a huge number of lightning strikes every year, and a surprising number of them kill people. Exact numbers, however, are hard to come by – so, using data on the USA collected by NOAA (the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration), it can be confirmed that over 400 people are struck by lightning every year in the USA, and that between 55 and 60 of them are killed. Of the rest, many of them suffer permanent neurological damage. Let me repeat that – permanent.
It can be a devastating problem. Just last month, in June 2016, almost 100 people were killed in India – in Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Jharkand and Madhya Pradesh. These figures represent catastrophe for the communities and families involved, especially as most of the casualties are labourers with only one income in the family.
Weather is more extreme in the USA and in India than it is in the UK – but we’re catching up quite a bit, thanks to climate change. Just this week, there was a warning for a majority of the UK for “Thunderstorms/Flash Flooding/Large Hail/Tornadoes”. I was surprised to see that list presented in such a matter of fact way, and it’s only because there’s so much going on right now – Nice, Turkey, Brexit after effects including a new Prime Minister – that it didn’t make headlines.
There can be very little notice of lightning strikes, because they can occur so far away from the centre of the storm – thats why it’s important to err on the side of caution, although that can seem completely impractical. What if there’s a storm, with distant thunder, when you’re due to leave the house for the day, dropping the kids off at school before getting to the train station to go to work?
I can tell you what best practice is, around lightning strikes. I can tell you that if I finish seeing a client and there’s a storm on, I suggest that we wait it out before either of us leaves. But I’m self employed – now that I know so much more about lightning, I’m not sure what I’d do if I was still an employee. Please leave feedback below, if you can, or contact me privately if it feels too identifiable.
The installation of lightning conductors and protectors is outside the scope of this article (though I sense another article on it’s way about that) but there are many, very simple things that we can all do to reduce the likelihood of lightning damage.
Switch appliances off AND unplug them. When there’s a surge in electrical supply because of a lightning strike, it has to go somewhere. Surge protecting extension leads will probably protect from comparatively small surges, like the ones that happen when electricity comes back on after a short power cut.
Storms can happen fast: make sure that you can get to your wallplugs quickly, that you don’t have to manoeuvre heavy furniture out of the way. Or that you have one of those protective extension leads – you can unplug your appliances really fast, and then, if you want, you can still grapple with the furniture to try to ensure that the extension lead isn’t fried.
There are UPS as well as extension leads: Uninterruptible Power Supply products ensure that the computer can be shut down safely, rather than an emergency shutdown. At the level of investment that most individuals can afford, that’s the best there is. Power down, in good order and unplug.
Don’t use a landline phone when you can hear thunder and especially not when you can see lightning. If the phone line itself is struck, even a couple of miles from where you are, you might quite easily be thrown across the room. Cordless phones, and mobile phones, are said to be unaffected – but isn’t a cordless phone plugged in to your landline is still liable to get affected by a strike on the phone line? I wouldn’t risk it, it’s a very low probability event, but a very high impact one.
Don’t use water, or touch metal or electrical objects. This is the time for reading a book, doing a few stretches, having a singsong or writing a letter. Dusting the skirting boards, even!
If you hear thunder, you’re close enough to be struck by lightning – take precautions as above as quickly as possible. Lightning can strike up to 10 miles away from the rainfall or thunderstorm cloud.
If you’re outdoors, get indoors as soon and as safely as you can. Remember that all thunderstorms produce some lightning, and if you can hear the thunder, you’re in danger. And there’s no safe place outdoors in a thunderstorm.
Move away from tall things (trees, power lines) and metal things too (parasols, bicycles) since they all attract lightning.
If you’re surrounded by trees, take shelter under the shorter trees.
However – don’t be the tallest object in the area, so avoid open areas as well.
Get to a low-lying area if you can, because of lightning striking the tallest objects around, but remember that flash flooding is increasingly common these days, don’t put yourself at risk of that either. All of this really emphasises my first point – there’s no safe place outdoors in a thunderstorm.
If you feel your hair stand on end and feel tingly, that means that lightning is about to strike, so crouch down, get on the balls of your feet and bend forward putting hands on your knees. The scientific basis for this is to make yourself as small as possible, to make yourself as small a target as possible, and to ensure that if you are unlucky enough to be struck anyway, the current will pass through your extremities, not your torso (i.e. not your heart and lungs).
Don’t lie flat, that will make you a bigger target, and put more of you in touch with the wet earth. Water is a great conductor.
Speaking of which … if you’re swimming, get out of the water, fast. If you’re in a boat of any sort, the same applies. Get out of the water, and get away from it.
If you’re with a group of people, spread out – statistically, this actually increases the chances of someone getting hit, but it also increases the chances that not all of you will be hit, so that any victims will have help on hand.
Lightning can strike several people at once, especially grouped together, and a mass casualty situation caused by lightning is triaged in a different way from others: if a strike victim is breathing on their own, they’ll probably continue to breathe, so most attention is paid to the people who aren’t breathing.
The best-practice recommendation is to stay inside a safe building or vehicle for 30 minutes after you hear the last thunder clap. That’s a long time, I know – but how often are thunderstorms in your area, even nowadays?
IN A VEHICLE
Keep the windows closed, that will help them conduct the electrical charge through to the ground and away from you. And the window area itself may be struck: if the window is open, that means that you will be struck, directly.
A car only provides protection if you are inside it (and it has a hard top). But just as with the surge protectors above, there’s still a chance. Be careful.
Don’t touch any metal part of the car, or the car radio.
IF SOMEONE IS HIT
Lightning victims don’t carry an electrical charge – they’re safe to touch, but they need medical attention urgently. Phone 999, or the medical emergency number of your own country if you’re not in the UK.
Deaths caused by lightning strikes are usually due to cardiac arrest – learn how to give emergency resuscitation. This page has the well known Vinnie Jones resus video, hands only CPR is a lifesaver.
Watch for two wounds: an entrance and an exit burn. Don’t put anything on them, just cover them with the cleanest, most sterile material you have available at the time.
If possible, move the victim to a safer place – lightning really can strike the same place twice, unfortunately.
Finally, this is a great view of where lightning is striking right now.