Deadly phenomena of lightning strikes underrated


By Dave

CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCIV) -- Summer is the peak season for one of the nation's deadliest weather phenomena, lightning.

Lightning is an underrated weather hazard. Yet, it is a leading storm-related killer and results in more than $1 billion in property damage each year in the U.S., according to the Insurance Information Institute (I.I.I.).

Lightning is a charge from the atmosphere to the ground emanating from a thunderstorm. The air surrounding a bolt can be as hot as 54,000 degrees or about six times as hot as the sun -- the reason for lightning's potentially fatal danger.

Every year lightning strikes the ground 30 million times and injures about a thousand people in the U.S., according to the Lightning Protection Institute. An average of 54 people are killed in this country alone by the intense electrical discharges from a thunderstorm. Four people have been killed so far this year.

Chaos caused by lightning doesn't stop there. It isn't just deadly, it can also be destructive to property. An analysis of homeowners insurance data by the I.I.I. found there were more than 186,307 lightning claims in 2011, down nearly 13 percent since 2010. Losses ranged from damage to expensive electronic equipment to structural fires that destroyed entire homes. In May of this year, a $2.4 million home was destroyed by fire caused by an early morning lightning strike on Kiawah Island.

"The message is simple: If you can hear thunder, lightning is close enough to strike you. Go indoors immediately," said Donna Franklin, National Weather Service lightning campaign manager. "It's tragic when people die because they stayed on the water fishing or on the golf course one minute longer than they should have. Being a victim of a lightning strike is a preventable tragedy that the National Weather Service is determined to stop as part of our efforts to build a Weather-Ready Nation."

Steps can be taken to protect life and property from dangerous lightning encounters.

If you are outside with a thunderstorm approaching, seek shelter inside a substantial building as soon as possible -- ideally in a structure with a lightning protection system. If you hear thunder, then lightning is close enough to strike. Remember, if thunder roars, go indoors!

If a safe building is not available, take shelter in a car with a metal roof and keep doors and windows closed. It is the metal frame of the car that protects you from lightning, not the rubber tires.

If someone has been struck by lightning, provide first-aid immediately. It is perfectly safe to touch someone who has been struck by lightning. You will not get an electrical shock. Call 911 immediately and begin CPR or use a defibrillator, if available.

Invest in a lightning protection system for your home and/or business. A building with a properly installed lightning protection system is a smart investment as it provides proven protection for your family, homes and valuables. It is an important safety investment in areas prone to lightning.

Numbers do show in the past 10 years, with increased lightning awareness, people's lives are being saved.

* Dave Williams received a B.S. in atmospheric science from The Ohio State University. Before joining ABC News 4, Dave was just up the road at WBTW in Myrtle Beach. Armed with a wealth of experience forecasting the weather in the Palmetto State, Dave is a member of the National Weather Association, American Meteorological Society, and holds a Seal of Approval from the NWA.