Wednesday, September 16, 2015


Photo Credit: Deviant Art
You can zig, and you can zag, but lightning kills about 30 people in the US each year, and more in Florida than in any other state. Of the 25 lightning deaths reported by the National Weather Service (NWS) already this year, five have occurred in Florida.

Although there are about 55,000 lightning strikes throughout the country each day, 3,500 hit Florida. Called "Lightning Alley" by meteorologists, thunderstorms sweep across the middle Sunshine State peninsula, from Tampa Bay to Cape Canaveral.  Almost 90% of all lightning to hit the state occurs between May and October, noon through midnight.

Safety experts warn that lightning can strike out of a clear blue sky, not just thunderstorms because bolts can travel more than 50 miles from the originating storm cloud. They also say that the telltale sign is when you feel the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. If that occurs, skedaddle to the nearest shelter, (that isn't a tree or an umbrella). Get indoors. Once indoors, stay off corded phones and electronic devices. Nearly 5% of all those killed by lightning died in their homes while using hardwired electronics.

Direct hits are usually fatal given a 50,000 degree lightning bolt is hotter than the sun. They generate 30,000 amps of charge and have 100 MILLION volts of electrical potential. What's truly amazing is that people actually survive lightning strikes. Only about 10% of those struck by lightning die from the event. Hundreds live to tell their tale every year. Often though, they are left comatose, or with permanent disabilities. A fisherman was struck by lightning and suffered burns on 25% of his body. A 39 year old golfer in Bonita Springs got struck in the head. He survived, initially, but died later on.  A couple were out on their boat canoodling. He got hit and died, whereas she suffered burns and other injuries. A 30 year old man was playing soccer in light drizzle when he was struck and killed. His 18 mates, though injured, weren't killed.

Which brings up a few good points. Firstly, most of those struck by lightning over the last 30 years have been men. Only one quarter of the total deaths were female. Not this year, though. This year, nearly half of those killed by lightning have been women.

Secondly, most strikes happen in June and July, and on Saturday and Sunday, primarily because: a) that's when thunderstorms happen; and, b) most deaths happened during recreational activities. And, soccer, not golf, is the sport with the highest deaths from lightning.

Lastly, you've got a higher chance--especially if you live and/or play in central Florida, of being affected by someone who's been hit. According to the NWS, the chances of being hit by lightning in your lifetime are about 1/12,000. But, your chance of being burned or singed, or worse, by someone who's been hit nearby is 1/1,200. As lightning strikes the earth, even if through a body, it induces ground currents that can be fatal for those 100 feet away.  AND, to make matters scarier still, lightning bounces. In fact, what we actually see is the voltage leaving the ground that it's just hit and returning to the cloud.

"The return stroke is so brilliant that as it travels up the strike channel, it illuminates all of the branches of the stepped leader that did not connect with a streamer," says the NWS.

If you're thinking lightening rarely strikes in the same place twice, think again. A park ranger in VA was hit seven times. Texas rodeo clown Casey Wagner survived two bolt hits in the same day. And a South Carolina man, Melvin Roberts, claims to have survived 10 strikes.

Structures, though, being fixed in nature's pathways, are subject to more hits than humans. One in about 100 homes will be hit, whereas only one in every 300,000 people will get hit. The Empire State Building in New York and the Sears Tower in Chicago, for instance, are each hit thousands of times per year. While Lightning rods help protect structures from strikes, they don't fully protect appliances and inhabitants from harmful electrical surges and the resulting fires caused by lightning entering through pipes and wires.  

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