On a summer day in the early ‘80’s, a lone lifeguard stood on Stewart Beach. The air was thick as a dark, green frontal system moved in from the north. In the distance lifeguard trucks drove up and down the beach using their loudspeakers to let people know lightning was moving into the area. Bolts of lightning struck nearby. The lifeguard whistled at the few remaining people in the area and yelled for them to get out of the water. Suddenly, time stood still, and the air crackled with electricity. He realized he was lying on his back. A filling in his mouth hurt, the hair on the back of his neck stood on end, and he felt as if insects were running across his temples. He had survived his first lightning strike. Later, he would be struck again while playing tennis with an aluminum racket.
A similar incident occurred a few years back to a lifeguard in Florida but resulted in a fatality. Every year, many people on or near bodies of water are struck by lightning. In the US, the highest numbers are in states bordering the Great Lakes, southern states bordering the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico, and the four corner states of Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, and Arizona.
Lightning most frequently occurs within 10 miles of a thunderstorm, so it is generally recommended that people take shelter when lightning comes within this distance. One way to tell how close lightning is involves counting the seconds between the flash of lightning and the corresponding thunder roar. This is known as the “flash to bang rule”. Every five seconds is a mile. If the time between the flash and the bang is less than 50 seconds, you want to clear out.
For a number of years, I’ve been part of a group working on a joint public education program for the United States Lifesaving Organization (USLA) and the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which includes the National Weather Service (NWS). Through this I realized that there’s lots I didn’t know about lightning. For example, I wasn’t aware that it wasn’t enough to seek shelter in a building. It has to be fully enclosed, grounded, and have electrical and plumbing. Boats aren’t really safe at all, but if you have to ride it out in one, it should be in a cabin without touching electronics or the walls. Cars are pretty safe, but not as good as proper buildings, and again, don’t touch metal frameworks.
If you are caught in a lightning storm on the beach and can’t get to an enclosed building or car, don’t just run to a partially enclosed picnic table or similar structure. Instead, stay away from the tallest objects (lifeguard stands, light poles, flag poles), metal objects (fences or bleachers), standing pools of water, and open areas.