Lightning: Think Like The Animals

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Earlier this week, we had a monster thunderstorm roll through our area on the coast of South Carolina. This was a massive system that started from the Gulf of Mexico, went across Florida out into the Atlantic and then curved back to hit the southeastern coast.

There was a lot of lightning in the system–the kind that is so close you can hear the sizzle before it lights up and the thunder is less than a three-count away. My wife and I love to sit in our back screened porch and watch these storms come in; they are a mighty show of Mother Nature’s force.

Animals often have better sense in storms than people, as was the case in this storm.  When the first flash of bright lightning was followed about a second later by a clap of thunder that shook the windows and rattled the garage door, the older of our two cats was all eyeballs and fur as he took off for his private storm shelter under our bed; the one-year-old kitten stayed with us, curious about all the noise.

My wife and I took our seats in our favorite (metal) glider chair, side-by-side, watching the wind drive rain in through the screens, pooling up a bit as the storm intensified. The kitten, already showing better sense than us, was under the chair.

We “oohed” and “ah’d” as the storm drew closer, the time between lightning flash and thunder clap became shorter and shorter and the rain came down so heavy we started joking about whether it was too late to get flood insurance.

When one particularly thunderous clap of thunder rattled my teeth and rolled on for about 30 seconds, the younger cat sped from under the chair to join his older and wiser compatriot under the bed.

About 20 minutes into the storm it began to dawn on me, as I felt the damp floor with my bare feet and remembered that my derriere was seated on a metal bench, that perhaps this wasn’t the wisest choice. Maybe the cats were on to something.

So I casually and without panic in my voice said to my wife, “You know, maybe we should go inside and watch the storm from there.” She, a diehard storm-watcher, bristled at my feint-heartedness and scoffed my petty fears.

Then she took my hand and said, “Well, if we get hit we’ll get hit together.”

I guess this was supposed to give me strength, but I said, “But what will our children do without us, who would feed the cats and bring in the mail?”

I think there was a flippant remark forming in her brain and about to be delivered when the entire backyard lit up as a white hot bolt of lightning ripped open the clouds, immediately followed by the loudest clap of thunder I never hope to hear again in my life.

There was no hesitation, no discussion and whatever flippant remark she was formulating was short-circuited. At this point, we pretty much looked like the cats, without fur or tails.  We were all eyeballs and elbows and I’m not sure our feet actually touched the ground as we rocketed out of the porch and into the safety of the house.

We laughed about it afterwards, but the moral of the story and the reason I tell it here is to say that lightning is nature’s direct current; you wouldn’t intentionally stick a metal rod into a light socket and so why take chances with lightning?

Statistically, an average of about 50 people per year can be expected to die from lightning strikes, based on a 50-year average according to the National Weather Service. Apparently we humans are getting the picture; in 2006 48 people died – in 2013, 23.  So far this year 14 have died.

I’d always heard that there were people who survived lightning strikes and since I may have been close to being one of those statistics I did a bit of research. Turns out there is a NWS “Survivor Stories” section on their website (www.lightningsafety.noaa.gov/survivors.htm). I suggest you take a look, there are some fascinating stories.

Out of 30 stories, only a couple reported no lasting effects from being hit by lightning. All the others reported a wide range of after-effects such as memory loss, vision problems, muscle weakness, heart problems, neurologic problems and more. Not surprisingly, there’s a support group for them.

This was only 30 stories out of the average 234 injuries reported from lightning each year.  Literally, the odds of being struck by lightning in any given year are better than the odds of winning the lottery.

I ask, why gamble with those odds? We unplug our computers during a storm to prevent frying the hard drive so why take a chance with our biological central processor, right?

Parks and rec professionals have more than a personal-safety reason to be aware and respectful of lightning; that is, the responsibility for people using recreational facilities and attending parks and rec events. When people are out having a good time they often aren’t always watching the weather and a lightning storm can pop up quickly.

If you don’t have a formal lightning-warning program that is clearly communicated to all users I’d advise getting one, ASAP.

It’s one thing to have a warning program but it’s another thing to make sure everyone who is in a position of authority knows how to implement it when the time comes. And it is important that users are prepared to comply immediately when the warning is given.

So if any Week-Enders have some personal lightning stories, please share them because your experience might be a call to action for someone else.

But, generally speaking when it comes to lightning, be smart and think like the animals.

Randy Gaddo, a retired Marine who also served for 15 years in municipal parks and recreation, is now a full-time photojournalist who lives in Beaufort, S.C.; he can be reached at (678) 350-8642 or email cwo4usmc@comcast.net.

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One comment on “Lightning: Think Like The Animals

  1. Karen Green on said:

    Anecdotal items certainly make the lesson memorable. Another great article.

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