Lightning strike basis of concern

Published 12:00 am Thursday, September 2, 2004

MARION – Malcolm Henry believes everyone should pay a little closer attention to the weather.

He wish he had last Saturday, when a his pickup truck was struck by lightning.

“Not many people live through a ball of fire like that and get to tell the story,” he said.

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Henry had made a run to this pond to feed his ducks when the strike happened.

“It was cloudy but I was just going to run out there and come right back,” he said. “Lightning struck the truck at the duck pond. It burnt my truck up but I’m still here.”

Henry said he was getting out of the truck when it was struck, engulfing it in a spectacular fireball.

“I never got my foot on the ground. I figured if I had I would have been killed,” he said. “My grandsons were behind me a good ways and said you couldn’t see the truck at all for the fireball.”

Getting the word out about the dangers of lightning is what Henry now wants to do.

“People need to realize [the danger] and have enough sense to get out of that kind of situation. I didn’t but I won’t now,” he said.

“People ought to be more cautious about lightning in the summer time like that,” he said.

Russell Weeden, Hale County’s emergency management director, agreed that people should be more cautious when it comes to lightning.

“We have had several lightning deaths over the past several years in Hale County,” he said, the most recent when a Demopolis family were boating in Arcola killing the father and the son.

Before that, a man was struck and killed while playing golf.

“I usually tell people to be aware of the weather when they’re outside. A lot of times, people get killed on the first strike – they don’t hear it or see it coming so being aware of changing weather conditions is the most important thing,” he said.

Lightning isn’t just an outdoors killer either.

“Don’t be on the telephone during a lightning storm or close to a flag pole or soothing else that’s going to act as a lightning rod,” he said.

Lightning is an underrated killer according to the National Weather Service, which says an average of 67 people are killed each year by lightning.

In 2003, the agency documented 44 lightning deaths. That’s more than the annual number of people killed by tornadoes or hurricanes. Many more are struck but survive. However, they often report a variety of long-term, debilitating symptoms, including memory loss, attention deficits, sleep disorders, numbness, dizziness, stiffness in joints, irritability, fatigue, weakness, muscle spasms, depression, and an inability to sit for long. Documented lightning-related injuries average about 300 cases per year.

The Weather Service, through its NOAA Lightning Safety Team, launched a national lightning safety awareness program in June.

The team offers the following lightning safety advice:

Lightning Safety Awareness: Education is Key

Few people really understand the dangers of lightning. Many people don’t act promptly to protect their lives, property and the lives of others because they don’t understand all the dangers associated with thunderstorms and lightning. The first step in solving this problem is to educate people so that they become aware of the behavior that puts them at risk of being struck by lightning, and to let them know what they can do to reduce that risk. Coaches and other adults who make decisions affecting the safety of children must understand the dangers of lightning.

Watch for Developing Thunderstorms

Thunderstorms are most likely to develop on warm summer days and go through various stages of growth, development and dissipation. On a sunny day, as the sun heats the air, pockets of warmer air start to rise in the atmosphere. When this air reaches a certain level in the atmosphere, cumulus clouds start to form. Continued heating can cause these clouds to grow vertically upward in the atmosphere into “towering cumulus” clouds. These towering cumulus may be one of the first indications of a developing thunderstorm.

The Lightning Discharge: Don’t Be a Part of It

During a thunderstorm, each flash of cloud-to-ground lightning is a potential killer. The determining factor on whether a particular flash could be deadly depends on whether a person is in the path of the lightning discharge. In addition to the visible flash that travels through the air, the current associated with the lightning discharge travels along the ground. Although some victims are struck directly by the main lightning stroke, many victims are struck as the current moves in and along the ground. While virtually all people take some protective actions during the most dangerous part of thunderstorms, many leave themselves vulnerable to being struck by lightning as thunderstorms approach, depart, or are nearby.

An Approaching Thunderstorm: When to Seek Safe Shelter

Lightning can strike as far as 10 miles away from the rain area in a thunderstorm. That’s about the distance you can hear thunder. When a storm is 10 miles away, it may even be difficult to tell a storm is coming.


The first stroke of lightning is just as deadly as the last. If the sky looks threatening, take shelter before hearing thunder.

The 30-30 Rule

Use the 30-30 rule where visibilty is good and there is nothing obstructing your view of the thunderstorm. When you see lightning, count the time until you hear thunder. If that time is 30 seconds or less, the thunderstorm is within 6 miles of you and is dangerous. Seek shelter immediately. The threat of lightning continues for much longer period than most people realize. Wait at least 30 minutes after the last clap of thunder before leaving shelter. Don’t be fooled by sunshine or blue sky!

If it is cloudy or objects are obscuring your vision, get inside immediately. It is always safer to take precautions than to wait.

Outdoor Activities: Minimize the Risk of Being Struck

Most lightning deaths and injuries in the United States occur during the summer months when the combination of lightning and outdoor summertime activities reaches a peak. During the summer, people take advantage of the warm weather to enjoy a multitude of outdoor recreational activities. Unfortunately, those outdoor recreational activities can put them at greater risk of being struck by lightning. People involved in activities such as boating, swimming, fishing, bicycling, golfing, jogging, walking, hiking, camping, or working out of doors all need to take the appropriate actions in a timely manner when thunderstorms approach. Where organized sports activities take place, coaches, umpires, referees, or camp counselors must protect the safety of the participants by stopping the activities sooner, so that the participants and spectators can get to a safe place before the lightning threat becomes significant. To reduce the threat of death or injury, those in charge of organized outdoor activities should develop and follow to a plan to keep participants and spectators safe from lightning.

Indoor Activities: Things to Avoid

Inside homes, people must also avoid activities which put their lives at risk from a possible lightning strike. As with the outdoor activities, these activities should be avoided before, during, and after storms. In particular, people should stay away from windows and doors and avoid contact with anything that conducts electricity. People may also want to take certain actions well before the storm to protect property within their homes, such as electronic equipment.

Helping a Lightning Strike Victim

If a person is struck by lightning, medical care may be needed immediately to save the person’s life. Cardiac arrest and irregularities, burns, and nerve damage are common in cases where people are struck by lightning. However, with proper treatment, including CPR if necessary, most victims survive a lightning strike, although the long-term effects on their lives and the lives of family members can be devastating.