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Staying safe when lightning strikes

Andreas Øverland

When we think of something with low odds, like winning the lottery, we might compare it to getting struck by lightning. However, the chances of getting struck by lightning may be higher than you think.

There is actually a one-in-12,000 chance this could happen in your lifetime, according to the National Weather Service. This week on “Take Care,” lightning expert John Jensenius tells us what we need to know about lightning and how to stay safe when it strikes. Jensenius is a meteorologist and lightning safety specialist with the National Weather Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

To help put this in perspective, Jensenius gives us some lightning statistics:

  • There are 25 million cloud-to-ground flashes of lightning in a typical year in the U.S.
  • 300 people a year are struck by lightning
  • 30 people a year are fatally struck by lightning

Lightning is a giant spark of electricity either in the cloud or the cloud and the ground. It can be as much as several hundred thousand volts of electricity, so it’s a huge amount of energy in a very short amount of time,” Jensenius said.

No matter where you are outside, Jensenius says nowhere is safe, and the biggest mistake people make is waiting too long to go inside when a storm hits. Jensenius classifies being inside as a substantial building or house with wiring and plumbing or a hard-topped metal vehicle.

“The metal vehicle will provide protection because if it is struck, the lightning will go around and follow the metal surface of the car around you and you’ll be safe. It has nothing to do with the rubber tires that are on the car,” Jensenius said.

Jensenius adds that whether you’re driving on the highway or sitting in a parking lot, you’re chances of getting struck remain the same. He says in the perspective of lightning, everything is standing still since it strikes so quickly. However, if you’re on foot, Jensenius advises moving as quickly as you can to find safety.

“Part of what we tell people is, you need to plan ahead,” Jensenius said. “[But] if you are outside, if you do hear thunder, that’s an immediate warning that you are in striking distance of the storm and you need to get inside right away.”

The first rumble of thunder tells you you’re about 10 miles from the storm, and yes, it is possible for lightning to strike you from that far away, according to Jensenius. He also advises precautions to take when you are inside during a lightning storm.

  • Stay a couple feet away from any window
  • Don’t touch anything that’s plugged into the wall
  • Avoid showering

Jensenius stresses his advice on lightning safety, as the outcome of being struck can be very serious. But should this happen to someone around you, he says the first thing you should do is check the person’s heart.
“The first concern is getting the heart working,” Jensenius said. “As far as survivors, the problems that they have…[are] the circuitry in the brain is all messed up. So being able to store information, retrieve information—leading to memory loss…their lives change completely.”