Sitting in the backyard under a tree, coaching soccer in a neighborhood field, and walking uphill seeking cell phone reception: Last year people doing everyday activities such as these were struck and killed by lightning, the second leading cause of storm-related deaths in the United States.
“There is no safe place outside during a thunderstorm,” says John Jensenius, lightning safety specialist with the National Weather Service. “When you see clouds build up, the best thing to do is to start looking for safety, because if you can hear thunder, you’re within striking distance.”
The best shelter is a house or other fully enclosed building, he says. An enclosed vehicle with a solid metal roof and metal sides is a good second choice. During a storm, don’t touch electrical equipment, corded telephones or plumbing fixtures, such as showers or sinks, all of which conduct electricity. Stay away from windows and doors, and stay put for at least 30 minutes after the last thunder is heard.
Thunderstorms are most common during summer afternoons or evenings and happen most often in the Midwest, Southeast and Rocky Mountain region, but they can occur anywhere in the country at any time of year.
If you plan to be outside, check the weather forecast. Lightning tends to strike tall objects in an open area. If you’re outside on a sports field, for example, that could be you.
About 400 people are struck by lightning in the United States each year and about 90 percent survive, often suffering from headaches, chronic fatigue, memory loss and difficulty concentrating.
“It’s important to plan ahead and take action at the first sign,” Jensenius says. “Not heeding the warning signs could be a tragic mistake.”