Ligthtning strikes can happen anywhere, anytime

Published 12:00 am Friday, June 27, 2003

Between 3 and 4 a.m. Tuesday night, lightning struck about 150 times in Mower County.

Considering how common a sight it is, many people remain unaware of the dangers this natural phenomenon poses. Myths are prevalent and can increase the danger for people who do not know the necessary precautions.

Among life-threatening acts of nature, lightning strikes are pretty high on the list.

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"When you look at all the things that are fatal to people in the U.S., lightning is number two," said Glenn Lussky, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service.

It is second only to floods.

Despite that, too many people do not run to safety with the same sense of urgency at signs of a thunderstorm as they do when the tornado sirens blare.

Austin resident Denise Arends, however, takes thunderstorms very seriously.

During a storm in the summer of 1999, Arends was heading up the walkway to her house after being dropped off by a friend. Suddenly, there was a flash of white light. She heard a loud crack.

"It almost sounded like someone was tearing a tree in half," Arends said.

She doesn't remember being knocked over.

"The next thing, I was on the ground, my glasses off, my purse thrown in one direction, one shoe was knocked off, and the buckle was broke on the other one," she said.

Arends did not know what had happened at first. She was able to stand and walk into the house. She noticed that her hands and feet were hot and bright red. Her jaw ached. She soon learned these were signs of electrocution.

Doctors told her she was lucky. The lightning had not struck her directly; it must have hit something close by. And while that too can be deadly, Arends suffered no ill effects from the event.

Today, she is not deathly afraid of thunderstorms, but she does give them their due respect.

"I don't venture too far out in the rain," she said.

Lussky said the nature of summer activities put many people at risk.

"Up here, when you get these storms, it's just the fact that you've got activities like farming, and with all the people on the golf courses, those are dangerous places to be," he said.

Bad information on how to handle yourself in a storm can make situations even more dangerous.

The American Red Cross lists four common myths.

n Lightning always strikes the tallest object. Lightning actually seeks out the best conductor, which in some cases is a human being.

n The rubber tires on a car offer protection from lightning. Find a building. The tires do not protect you, although being in a car is better than no shelter at all. Convertibles, however, are virtually worthless as protection.

n Lightning never strikes twice in the same place. Some buildings, like the Empire State Building, are stuck many times every year.

n Lightning cannot strike from far away. In fact, a strike from a half-mile away can knock a person down and cause severe injury.

The Red Cross also offers a number of safety tips.

If you are outside during a thunderstorm, find shelter immediately. If there is not any shelter, go to a low, open area away from trees or metal objects that act as conductors. Squat down and keep as little of your body as possible from touching the ground.

If you are indoors, unplug appliances and avoid the phone. Stay away from faucets, sinks or bathtubs because metal pipes will conduct electricity. Close the blinds and stay away from windows.

Arends simply said not to underestimate the situation.

"Don't take it for granted that it's just going to be a mild storm," she said.

Matt Merritt can be reached at 434-2214 or by email at