We are good at making preparations when severe weather is forecast.
Warnings of hurricanes approaching the shore cause people to attach plywood boards on their windows. Some put an “X” of duct tape on the glass instead (the purpose of that has never been clear).
Most heed tornado warnings and seek shelter immediately.
But there’s a neglected killer.
In 2013, 23 lives were lost in 14 states, according to the National Weather Service. In 2012, 28.
The culprit is lightning.
Thunderstorms are so common in the summer it’s easy to adopt an indifferent attitude. But the list of situations shows common settings over and over.
“Under a tree” is probably the most frequent place where lightning victims are found. Seeking shelter from the rain under a tree, any kind of tree, means exposing yourself to the risk of being struck because lightning discharges its tremendous power into tall exposed objects.
“Fishing” and/or “boating” is another common category that can end in tragedy during a thunderstorm. On a boat you’re obviously the highest spot on the water, presenting an easy target.
On July 23, 2013, a couple on honeymoon was killed in Arizona at a scenic overlook. This again emphasizes the danger of staying in an exposed area during a thunderstorm.
Myth has it the rubber tires of a vehicle protect from lightning because “they isolate you from the ground.” The number of bicyclists and motorcyclists killed or injured tells differently, though.
Only a fully enclosed vehicle like a sedan or SUV, not a two-wheeler, convertible or tractor, provides some protection. A tent does not, and neither does the canopy of an outdoor restaurant, as the sad statistics of the past two years have shown.
Getting struck by lightning doesn’t mean being reduced to a pile of ashes in a split second.
Permanent injury is 30 times more likely than death, because burns aren’t the most common type. More likely are heart damage and injury of the central nervous system. This means cardiac arrest, chronic pain for life, a persistent ringing in the ears or total deafness.
The warning signs of lightning are clear. When clouds build up into huge towering shapes in the summer, expect lightning. A distant rumble warns of an approaching storm.
And when lightning is close enough to be seen, it’s high time to seek shelter in the only place providing safety: indoors.
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.