Lightning is Striking, 3-part Series

Lightning branches from cloud at night.

Lightning is Striking, Part 1

Recorded in 2010... Beautiful cumulus clouds in the distance. Later in the day they become thunderstorms and that means lightning. Hardly a day goes by in summer without it. I’m Chief meteorologist Alan Sealls. This program is all about lightning. You know why. It happens a lot. We take it for granted but we have to take it seriously.

Lightning is electricity that is hotter than the sun. Lightning is a narrow channel of current with a job of balancing the electric field in the air, around the Earth. It strikes the ground in the US more than 25 million times a year but much more than that stays in the air. Lightning strikes can impact people and lives.

Debbie Thrower: I just heard the sound and I looked up and opened my eyes. My whole family was laid out like they were hit with machine guns. I mean my daughter was down on the beach. My husband was down. My son was out of his chair on the ground and I don’t even know what to tell you. It was very quick. The next thing I knew I could see my husband had blood coming out of his head.

The odds of being struck by lightning are actually not that high compared to other injuries yet several hundred people in the United States are struck each year. Most survive. Here’s News 5 Pat Peterson with the rest of  Mrs. Thrower’s family survival story.

"man it was blue skies when it happened, there was rain in the area, but don't know where that thing came from."
"all I remember is waking up in an ambulance so I have no idea."
"he was face down here"
"I went to him, rolled him over, and he wasn't breathing and I couldn't find a pulse on him, so I started CPR."
"next time you hear a clap of thunder, you're going to be a little more leery? Absolutely. If we see lightning, we'll get inside a little sooner."
"what does it feel like to be struck by lightning? It's weird, it doesn't hurt until later, everything's numb."
"these are the Days of our Lives. Somebody sing, I'll sing
"I don't like it, me either, gives me the willies."

Note Mr. Thrower’s description of the weather when the lightning struck.

"man it was blue skies when it happened, there was rain in the area, but don't know where that thing came from."

At the time of the strike the main storms were a few miles away but this isn’t unusual.

Notice the few lightning strikes. One of them just north of Highway 180, north of the Lagoon. One in the Gulf and one right between 11th and 12th streets in Gulf Shores. Because there are so few of them you don’t expect them to happen. So that’s always something to be careful of.

Most lightning injuries occur before the rain starts or after the rain ends. People are caught off guard. On First Alert Titan we often see rain with a lot of lightning but then when you look harder you’ll commonly find isolated lightning strikes outside of the rain. That’s the kind that surprises and can send you to the hospital. Locally...

Dr. Arnold Luterman: We see maybe half a dozen a year coming with a history of a lightning strike in their vicinity. Some are very hard to explain. For example; Clear sky. We had one fellow who was on his dock. Clear sky and bang! The next thing you know he wakes up in the burn center.

Be aware of your level of risk. If you see lightning or hear thunder in the distance start heading inside.

You’re at a ball game sitting on a metal bench. Not a good thing to do when thunderstorms are around. Also not good is being near a long metal fence because that metal can conduct electricity from lightning.

Don’t stand near or under tall or large metal objects outside during thunderstorms. Definitely stay away from tall poles and isolated trees. Get out of the pool and get out of the water. Water conducts electricity even better than air.

Makeda Nichols: Use some common sense. When there’s lightning don’t dry to expose yourself to it.

Dr. Arnold Luterman: If you notice, in say golf tournaments, as soon as they see lightning or even a threat, it’s over. That’s the kind of way you have to deal with it if you’re at a family reunion, a picnic, on the beach. I don’t care where you are. If there’s even a threat of lightning, you need to be in a place that’s got proper grounding.

Nationally the overwhelming majority of lightning victims are men, and not just men on the golf course. It's men hiking, hunting, swimming, boating, playing sports and just working outside. All it takes to reduce your risk is going inside. Even once you are inside there is some risk from lightning, not just to the building but to you. That’s coming up next along with.....

Hi Mom. I’m alive. You probably heard I got struck by lightning.

Lightning is Striking, Part 2

Lightning defines thunderstorms. It’s an extreme version of a static discharge like one you might see at the Gulf Coast Exploreum. Roger Smith might look like a mad scientist but his hair is showing a sign that electric current is building. That can happen outside just before lightning strikes. It’s not so funny then.

You’re outside in a wide open field and you hear the thunder in the distance. At the same time your skin starts to tingle. That’s a sign that lightning may be about to strike. Here’s the old rule: Get down on the balls of your feet but don’t touch the ground. That’s kind of hard to do. Here’s what I would do...

As it turns out, inside a car I’m relatively safe. As long as the windows are up and I’m not touching any metal. Now there’s a myth that it’s because of the rubber tires. Not so. You’re safe inside of a bus, a train and an airplane simply because it’s all a big metal box.

The electricity travels around the outside of metal boxes. Cars do get struck by lightning. The electrical system could be damaged or destroyed but the passengers are usually not injured. Your best lightning shelter is inside a substantial building. Of course, that doesn’t mean the building won’t be struck by lightning.

Steve Huffman: When we have our typical summer lightning thunderstorms you’re almost guaranteed that something is going to get struck by lightning. It doesn’t always result into a house fire or a building fire but something’s going to get struck. There are three ways that lightning will strike a building. It’s either a direct hit, or it can be through the ground. The most common way is through the wiring, either electrical wiring, cable, or through pipes.

Extreme current and heat can do serious damage to electric wiring, traveling to many parts of your house. Make sure the antenna, cable, and phone line are all grounded. Invest in surge protectors for your home and individual surge protectors for expensive appliances and electronics. You’re not guaranteed they’ll stop a jolt from a bolt but they just might help prevent a few thousand dollars in damage.

Makeda Nichols: Most of the time we have lightning claims for things like computers, televisions, telephones and the smaller appliances, and trees. A lot of pine trees. Occasionally where a house does catch on fire because it got hit by lightning.

It’s unpredictable how lightning behaves when it strikes near your home. It may miss the trees and go for the sprinkler system, and then keep traveling.

Makeda Nichols: I have my own experience. It went from one end of the house. It was in the laundry room and it took me a while to figure out where, and it was so strange to hear, you know, to see that happen.

All of that should make your think of your personal safety indoors during lightning.

Steve Huffman: Don’t stand by windows. Don’t take a shower. Don’t stand near sinks or things like that.

Aside from plumbing, avoid handling appliances and electronics with cords, wires and cables. That’s things like phones, computers, video games, blow dryers, curling irons and electric shavers. You are okay with cordless items like cell phones and TV remotes or wireless keyboards and mice but it doesn’t mean the device will be okay! Lightning can destroy electronics easily. We have first hand experience here at news 5.

Randy Wendt: We have a 200 foot tower here and a 2,000 foot tower in Malbis so between the two of those they get struck quite often. Sometimes it just blows a fuse on a piece of equipment and other times it will damage multiple components. It’s very unpredictable. Sometimes lightning can induce electricity into long runs of wire and we’re fairly sure that we’ve had times here where we didn’t get a direct strike but it was very close by and we’ve had damaged equipment and were 99% sure it was caused by voltage just induced in the wiring we  have in this building.

We have a single point grounding system that ties all of our electronics together.

Randy Wendt: Lightning always tries to find, or electricity always tries to find the path of least resistance to ground.

You can also buy a lightning protection system for your home to safeguard your family and electronics. It’s more than just lightning rods, like the ones you see on many buildings.

Steve Huffman: They are not cheap. They are costly. You can hire a certified professional  technician to put in a system that’s approved by the National Fire Protection Association. It needs to be done by a professional, not the homeowner. If it’s done wrong it will have a worse effect if you had not done it at all.

Done wrong a lightning protection system can make it easier for lightning to carry high voltage and high heat into your house. How much heat? Enough to melt wiring and start a fire. Consider that lightning striking sand generates enough heat to fuse the sand particles into a hollow branching underground tube called a fulgurite. It’s basically glass. This is only a small piece of one.

So what if lightning strikes you?

Dr. Arnold Luterman: It’s a serious injury but for the most part, most of the time they’re getting a shock from it hitting around them, and the injury occurs from them being thrown or they’ll break bones.

Lightning injuries happen throughout the United States.

Hi Mom, I’m alive

This man was injured in a summer thunderstorm in the Colorado Rockies.

My hair stood up.

He knew he was in danger but had no option to get inside.

Coming up in part 3 of this special series...

We ain’t scared.

Lightning is Striking, Part 3

Dr. Mary Ann Cooper: Too many people want to continue their activity until the rain actually comes.

We ain’t scared

Dr. Mary Ann Cooper: Lightning can hit as far as 10 miles in front of a thunderstorm and that’s frequently where we see the injuries, where it appears to be coming out of what some people might say is the clear blue sky.

We can’t fear lightning but we have to respect it. It’s a normal, needed part of the Earth’s electrical balance. Look at this cluster of active thunderstorms over Argentina as seen by the Space Shuttle. They stretch more than 700 miles across. No one can predict where the next flash occurs but fortunately, most lightning along the Gulf Coast stays in the sky rather than hitting the ground. Watch this in slow motion. In what takes a fraction of a second electric current flows across nothing but air to smooth out the electric field. From a distance it’s intriguing and amazing. The lightning heats the air and creates a shock wave we hear as thunder.

Lightning travels from cloud to ground; from cloud to cloud; from cloud to air; and from one part of a cloud to another part of the same cloud. The type that is a direct danger to us is cloud to ground. It usually starts as a rapidly branching charge reaching down from the cloud. It’s too fast and too faint for you eyes to see. Once it finds a good source of current, the electricity shoots up to the cloud, completes the circuit, and produces the brilliant flash. More current can then travel upward in the same channel to produce flickering, all in less than a couple of seconds.

If the flash is too far away we don’t hear the thunder and that’s what’s called heat lightning, because it happens on a warm summer night. But all lightning produces thunder.

The lightning comes first, the thunders is second. But when it’s close you see it and hear it at the same time.

When a thunderstorm is far away there’s a bigger difference between when you see lightning and hear thunder.

Now the camera is 100 yards away from me. Look at the difference from when you see the balloon pop and hear it. It takes sound about 5 seconds to travel a full mile.

Steve Huffman: If you can hear thunder the chances are there’s lightning nearby.

If you hear thunder and it’s raining don’t do this.

When it’s raining you might be tempted to stand under a tree to stay dry. Don’t do that during thunderstorms. Lightning likes tall objects and if you’re standing under the tallest object by itself, you put your self  at even greater risk.

Just look at what lightning does to a tree. It can vaporize the sap; blow the bark off; splinter branches and limbs; travel to the ground and then shock or electrocute anybody standing under the tree.

Steve Huffman: You don’t have to be struck directly by lightning to be affected by it.

When a tree is struck by lightning the lightning goes into the ground and then strange things can happen. It doesn’t just stop there.

Have you ever heard of a lightning trench? It’s a trench created when lightning goes into the ground and keeps travelling along or just beneath the surface. A couple of years ago this lightning trench was found in a west Mobile cemetery a few days after storms. The tree was hit by lightning and then the current went to the base of the trunk. It burned the wood and moved away from the tree in a straight line, throwing clumps of soil as it dug a trench. Farther from the tree it branched and went toward graves and a metal fence. The heat from the lightning blew chunks of cement off one grave. This is the reason whey you should avoid tall trees during thunderstorms.

There’s still a lot to learn about lightning- both how it happens and what it does when it strikes objects and people.

Dr. Arnold Luterman: A lot goes unexplained with lightning injuries.

We had a young girl who basically developed an amnesia type syndrome where she could remember, it was almost like the movie 50 First Dates. That’s what she was like and she’s still undergoing treatment for that.

Dr. Mary Ann Cooper: 90% of people who are injured by lightning live and many of them have significant disabilities which really changes families and changes lives.

Hi, I’m Ellen Bryant, a Miss America hopeful from Ohio. This is my sister Christina. Nine years ago she was struck by lightning while working on a golf course. Her injuries were extensive and permanent. Christina and I are here today to tell you how to protect yourself. Lightning can travel up to 10 miles away in all directions from a thunderstorm. If you see lightning or just hear thunder go indoors and stay there for 30 minutes until after the storm has passed. Just remember, when thunder roars, go indoors.

Worldwide this animation shows the greatest lightning threat is in warm places, nearer to the equator. Central Africa gets the most strikes on Earth. The southern United States gets its share. Next to central Florida, our area gets the most thunderstorms per year in the US. Lightning is a daily hazard in the ware season. Watch it in slow motion. It’s incredible to think it can carry 30,000 amps and reach a temperature of 50,000 degrees.  The main lightning channel is only a few inches across but it can be seen for tens of miles. When it hits the ground, lightning transfers energy back up into the cloud and this happens somewhere on Earth each moment. NASA estimates 100 flashes every second worldwide. Regardless of how it happens remember the basics.

Makeda Nichols: Don’t expose your self to lightning
Dr. Arnold Luterman: If someone is struck by lightning call 911, Administer CPR, keep them warm. No one wants to call off that family picnic because there’s a lightning threat but call it off, otherwise the next reunion is not going to be for pleasure.

Common sense says don’t stay outside when there’s lightning nearby. When thunder roars, go indoors. It’s that simple.

Lightning Survivor Story

It was sprinkling a little bit, on and off. There were some things I had to do outside but I figured I'd wait until it stopped but I was inside. And then, I remember sweeping the floor, and my daughter calling me and when I answered the phone I put the broom down, and it was like this- holding the door jamb. It was simultaneous that I saw the lightning and heard the boom. And I knew it threw me, because my son found me on the other side of the trailer, under the table. My son said he looked, and he saw nothing out of place and that's why he believes in came in through my hand, out through my ear, phone, cord, and was there somewhere grounded, through that. The next thing I know, they were carrying me to the hospital. I was totally numb on this side. I couldn't move my arm, and I felt like this side of my head was actually blown off. Because, it was very, very intense. I couldn't have predicted it was coming, that's why, you know, it can catch you off guard, and you just don't know.

Mrs. Buchanan says she's recovering well. She shared pictures of the injury to her ear and wrist, and also the damage to her cell phone and charger that was plugged into the wall. These things can be replaced.

A lot of times, those people who do get struck by lightning, they're not here to talk about it.

Sitting with her daughter Angel, Roseann Buchanan says that she wants everyone to take lightning safety seriously.

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