The Hippo


Apr 26, 2019








When lightning strikes
Precautionary tales

By Kelly Sennott

 Think you know about lightning safety? It’s possible some of your “facts” are urban legends.

Lightning safety specialist and warning coordination meteorologist John Jensenius set the facts straight during a phone interview last week. The Maine native, who participated in Lightning Safety Awareness Week in North Conway last June, said getting struck is more common than you might think. Sure, the odds are about one in a million it will happen this year, but those odds change depending on your behavior. Over the course of your lifetime, the chance is one in 12,000.
“Typically, across the United States, between 300 and 400 people are struck every year. Of those, roughly 30 die from lightning strikes. It’s something to be concerned about,” Jensenius said. “It’s a bit of an inconvenience to be safe, but it’s certainly worth it, in my opinion.”
The most vulnerable are the tallest objects in an immediate area. You’re more susceptible if your home’s at the top of a hill, in an open field or near a very large tree. 
One of the most important things for people to know, in Jensenius’s opinion, is there’s little you can do to remain safe outside. If there’s a chance you’ll get caught out in a storm, get to a safe place, whether that be a nearby shelter or your car.
If you do hear thunder, “You’re already in danger, and you need to get to a safe place immediately. Thunder [is audible] 10 miles from a storm, and lightning can strike 10 miles out from a storm,” Jensenius said. (Side note: A storm’s distance can be measured by counting the time between lightning and thunder. Every five seconds equals one mile. Again, do your counting indoors if possible.)
Cars are safe, not because of their rubber tires, but because if lightning strikes the vehicle, it will follow the outer metal shell to the ground. Lightning strikes cars every year, and more often than not, it blows out the tires, Jensenius said.
“To my knowledge, nobody’s been killed or seriously injured while riding in a car. There’s a slight risk the windshield will shatter, but usually that’s the rear windshield, not the front, because there are some metal defoggers in some rear windshields,” he said. 
Wearing rubber doesn’t help. 
“The amount of rubber you would have to wear to avoid lightning is huge. It could be as much as a mile of rubber to protect yourself,” Jensenius said. 
How to keep safe (and keep your stuff safe) inside? Know that lightning can enter the house through wires. If you really want protection, getting a lightning rod is the way to go.
“The purpose is to intercept that lightning and give it a path to the ground,” Jensenius said. “One thing people don’t understand: Lightning is not attracted toward these lightning rods. They’re there to intercept the lightning.”
Of course, it’s a little more involved than you may think. If you’ve got an easy, ranch-styled home with few or no soil issues, it can cost as little as $2,500, said Will Priestly, who owns the New Hampshire-based company Zero Zap. The roof requires a whole network of rods, and the structure connects to the ground in several places. It’s much easier to incorporate if you’re in the process of building a house.
Most major buildings — government-owned buildings, hospitals, malls, businesses, fire and police stations — have some sort of lightning safety features, but Priestly said most of his customers reach out after their homes have been struck. 
If you don’t have protection systems, you can unplug your minor appliances — your computer, television, microwave, etc., and also things like outside antennae and cables. (Though of course, do it before, not during the storm.) 
“If you’re inside, you want to stay away from anything that will conduct electricity,” Jensenius said. “Anything plugged into an outlet or that has a direct connection to outside. … Lightning strikes could hit plumbing, so you don’t want to be washing dishes or taking a shower during the storm either.”
Similarly, stay off corded phones (because they have direct wires to outside) and away from doors or windows that lead to outside.
“There’s this myth that metal attracts lightning. Metal does not attract lightning, but it does conduct lightning,” Jensenius said. 
People have survived lightning strikes but immediate help is critical — an after-effect could be cardiac arrest, requiring CPR and a 911 call right away. 

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