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Tips for Staying Safe in 'Lightning Alley'

Florida leads the nation in lightning-related deaths, according to NOAA, and residents of the Tampa Bay area are especially at risk.

There's a reason the corridor between Tampa Bay and Titusville is known as Lightning Alley. It experiences the most lightning in the United States annually, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and 90 percent of those strikes occur between May and October, generally between noon and midnight. 

According to NOAA, “on average, lightning is responsible for more weather-related deaths in Florida than all other weather hazards combined, and Florida has the highest number of lightning casualties of all 50 states.”

Lightning is the result of a complex process related to the build-up and discharge of electrical energy between positively and negatively charged areas. Rapid heating and cooling of air near the lightning causes a shock wave, resulting in thunder.

Nature’s Early Warning System

Experts advise seeking shelter at the first thunder clap. Thunder acts as an early warning that lightning is on its way, they say. Waiting until you see a flash of lightning means you may not have enough time.

The sound of thunder travels roughly one mile every five seconds. To calculate the distance, count seconds between the flash of lightning and the crack of thunder. Then divide by five to calculate the number of miles (10 seconds = two miles).

Local emergency workers agree you should take precautions. 

"At the first signs of storms, you definitely want to seek shelter," said Frank Vento, fire inspector withGulfport Fire Rescue. "It's important because we know lightning can strike you from at least 10 miles away."

According to FEMA, there are a few things you can do if caught in a thunderstorm: Seek shelter at the first sight of darkening skies. If in the woods, take shelter under a cluster of shorter trees. If swimming, get to land and find shelter immediately. If none is available, find a low-lying, open place away from trees, poles and metal. Experts advise to squat low to the ground with your hands over your ears and your head between your knees to minimize contact with the ground. This will make you a smaller target should lightning strike.

Running for cover in baseball dugouts, carports, sheds, tents or greenhouses will not provide adequate protection, according to the National Weather Service and NOAA. Golf carts, convertibles and motorcycles also offer inadequate protection from lightning. Your best bet is to get inside an office, home or school. Experts also advise it is wise to pull over to the side of the road if driving during a thunderstorm.

In a storm, you should:  

  • seek cover in a four-sided and enclosed building or hardtop vehicle when you hear thunder
  • avoid using appliances, plumbing and computers during a thunderstorm (that includes stoves and sinks)
  • remain indoors for 30 minutes after the last thunder clap because storms may linger

For Your Home

Electrical surges caused by lightning can also injure or destroy appliances and devices in your home, but surge protectors can minimize the damage. They generally help protect all electrical and electronic appliances. It’s wise to have one installed at each electrical outlet with a plugged-in device. 

You can install a lightning protection system that provides an alternate but direct path for lightning to the ground. That may help divert it from going through your home. Lightning can still enter your home through telephone wires, cables or electrical lines. However, whole house surge-protection systems are also available. They are usually installed on the electrical meter or the electrical panel to help protect appliances such as TVs and computers.

Some tips for staying safe while indoors:

  • unplug appliances and avoid using the computer, stove, sink, telephone or television
  • turn off your air conditioner
  • stay away from plumbing and wires 

First Aid

If you see someone who has been struck by lightning: 

  • call 911 immediately
  • check for burns on the body where the lightning has entered and exited
  • if breathing has stopped, begin rescue breathing
  • if the heart has stopped beating, a trained person should give cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR)

Vento also encourages citizens to take a CPR class.

"If you can get trained and certified, you're performing an important, vital function. It's a wonderful feeling to save a life," said the fire department veteran, who has witnessed a person getting struck by lightning.   

According to the National Weather Service, lightning has already been the cause of 15 fatalities in the United States this year.

Lightning Facts  

  • The average flash of lightning could power a 100-watt lightbulb for more than three months.
  • A spark of lightning can reach an area greater than five miles long.
  • Lightning can reach temperatures of nearly 50,000 degrees Fahrenheit, hotter than the sun’s surface.
  • Annually, lightning strikes the ground approximately 25 million times in the United States.

For more information, visit the American Meteorologic Society.

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