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Earth Sense: Stayin alive in a storm means avoid lightning
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“When thunder roars, go indoors” is a good rule for protection from lightning. But there isn’t always an audible warning.

On June 24, an Atlanta woman was killed by a lightning bolt “coming out of nowhere,” witnesses reported. She was standing in just a few inches of water at Daytona Beach when the thunderstorm started, striking her and two other beachgoers nearby, who survived. The only indicator of danger was a “large, dark cloud” observed just before the tragedy occurred.

Thunder is the sound made by lightning. When you hear the “boom,” lightning has already struck somewhere. The earliest warning sign isn’t thunder but strong vertical cloud development. Standing still and watching the cloud, one can often see it expanding and growing upward, like a cluster of balloons being inflated simultaneously.

Dark streaks below the cloud indicate that rain has started in the distance. If the cloud takes a mushroom shape, with a broad head that looks somewhat like a baseball cap, it’s time to leave the beach, park or hiking trail and seek shelter indoors. Even a car provides protection if it has a solid metal roof and isn’t the convertible or Jeep type.

Lightning hazards are particularly great at the beach, where there are large flat areas and people stand out tallest above the ground. The salty water and wet sand are additional conductors of electricity. But whether it’s the coast, the rolling hills of Habersham County or the Georgia mountains, lightning presents the same danger everywhere because it carries millions of volts in a flash electric discharge.

Buford residents recall the sad event when three people died and six were hospitalized after lightning struck the Buford Dam park on June 27, 2004.

Training in CPR may save a life. Victims of a lightning strike aren’t burned to a heap of ashes as you see in comic strips. The main hazard is cardiac arrest. Electricity carried into the body stops the heart from beating.

Yet it’s no longer considered important to do mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. The American Heart Association recommends hands-only CPR on its website. The instructions are meant seriously where it says to “push hard and fast in the center of the chest to the beat of the classic disco song “Stayin’ Alive.”

The best method for staying alive is to watch the clouds carefully, and leave when severe weather threatens.

Rudi Kiefer, Ph.D., is a professor of physical science and director of sustainability at Brenau University. His column appears Sundays and at gainesvilletimes.com.

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