Lightning: an underrated killer

By Megan R. Harrell
Star Correspondent

   The National Weather Service has slated this week, June 22-29, National Lightning Awareness Week. The time has been set aside to shed light on the natural phenomenon -- and its underestimated danger.
   During the last 30 years there have been an average of 73 documented cases of lightning related fatalities in the United States. The number is higher than the number of deaths caused by tornadoes or hurricanes. Only floods exceed it in weather related deaths.
   Some states are more susceptible to lightning storms, and statistics show that most of the accidents occur in areas with a lot of outdoor activities such as Florida and North Carolina. Over a 30-year period there were 345 deaths, and 1,178 injuries resulting from lightning storms in Florida. More lightning related accidents take place in Florida than in any other state.
   Along with Florida and North Carolina, Tennessee is ranked among the top ten states where injuries or deaths from lightning occur most often. During the same 30-year period there were 124 deaths and 349 injuries from lightning in the state of Tennessee, making it fifth in the study completed by the NWS.
   The research was based on those accidents that were reported; scientists estimate that the number of undocumented cases of lightning injuries in the nation could be as high as 500 each year.
   Members of the weather service believe a lack of education and understanding of lightning are to blame for the high volume of lightning related accidents in the U.S.
   The NWS has issued the following statement in conjunction with National Lightning Awareness Week. "Few people really understand the dangers of lightning. Many people don't act to protect their lives, property and the lives of others promptly because they don't understand all the dangers associated with thunderstorms and lightning."
   The weather service adds that people often underestimate the strength of an approaching thunderstorm and stay outside too long when a storm is approaching.
   Lightning travels through the ground as well as through the air. Most injuries occur when individuals believe they are safe because they are out of the path of the visible flash, and remain outside as a storm is beginning or nearby. The electric currents are present in the ground during these times and can cause serious shock as well as injury.
   It is important to remember that lightning has the ability to strike as far as 10 miles away from the rain in a storm, so precautions should be taken as soon as thunder is audible.
   People often delay seeking shelter because they are involved in some type of outdoor activity. The NWS concludes that most people who are struck by lightning are hit while enjoying summer activities such as golf, swimming, boating, fishing, walking, and camping.
   Those caught outside during a thunderstorm should seek shelter in a building with plumbing or wiring. The piping and electric wiring will conduct the lightning away from people inside. If no significant structure is in the area, individuals should get into a car. Never lie flat on the ground because of the electric currents running through the soil.
   Although much less common than outdoor incidences, lightning strikes indoors as well. Windows, doors, electrical appliances, and indoor plumbing should be avoided during thunderstorms.
   If someone is struck by lightning the initial step that should be taken is to call for help. People who have been struck by lightning carry no electrical charge, so they may be handled freely by caregivers.
   If the victim has stopped breathing rescue breathing may be administered, and if there is no pulse a trained person should give CPR. After a heartbeat and pulse have been restored the victim should be checked for burns, both at the entrance and exit. There may be damage to the nervous system, broken bones, and a loss of hearing or eyesight.
   Storm data published by the NWS states that only 10 percent of lightning victims are killed. Approximately 90 percent of the victims are sometimes left to live with severe physical disabilities.
   There are so many lightning strike survivors in the nation that a support group has been formed. Lightning Strike & Electric Shock Survivors International, Inc. offers a number of services to those who have been struck by lightning and who have lived to tell their stories.
   According to storm data, there are several degrees of long-term injury that result from lightning strikes, but the beginning symptoms are almost always similar.
   The publication states, "Early on, survivors may complain of intense headaches, ringing in the ears, dizziness, nausea, vomiting and other post-concussion types of symptoms. Survivors may also experience difficulty sleeping, sometimes sleeping excessively at first and then only two or three hours at a time. A few may develop seizure-like activity several weeks to months after the injury."
   Some lightning strike survivors suffer permanent changes to their personalities. Damage to the frontal lobe causes them to become irritable and easily angered. Memory loss is also common in survivors.
   There are several other physical ailments, which those who have been struck by lightning live with, and doctors are working to treat the survivors. However, both doctors and scientists agree that the best treatment is prevention.
   In addition to more intense education campaigns about the dangers of lightning, NWS is working with NASA to reduce the number of people caught in lightning storms.
   A team of NASA researchers at the National Space Science and Technology Center in Huntsville, Ala. is working to develop maps that show lightning trends worldwide. The high-resolution maps show the frequency of lightning strikes and where they have increased as a result of El Nino.
   According to the Goddard Space Flight Center in Washington the maps are a breakthrough in weather related research because they could double severe storm warning lead-time, and decrease false warnings.