The shocking facts about lightning

Published 10:02 am Monday, September 13, 2010

Powerful, beautiful, terrifying, deadly. Lightning can be all of those things at once, and knowledge is key to protect yourself and your loved ones from this destructive force.

Understanding and awareness is the best way to make sure you are safe during the many lightning storms that flash across Tri-State skies.

John Jensenius, warning coordination meteorologist, is considered a lightning expert and said lightning can be described as a discharge of energy between the cloud and the ground or with the ground.

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“During a thunderstorm, there is a buildup of energy until the charge is too great,” Jensenius said. He said the step leader, the negatively charged energy released from the cloud, reaches something positively charged, and that’s what is seen.

“There is a connection made usually with the tallest object in the immediate area, and when that connection is made, the charge in the channel is discharged,” he said. “That’s what we see in a flash of lightning.”

Jensenius said close to 600 people a year are struck by lightning, and for every nine who survive, one dies. He credits CPR for some of the survivors.

“Lightning often effects the heart and brain, and with CPR, they can be revived and live,” he said.

Following safety guidelines is the most important thing you can do to avoid lightning injuries.

“If you can hear thunder, you are within striking distance of the storm,” Jensenius said. “If you hear thunder, take immediate action and get to a safe place. Get to a substantial building with wiring and plumbing.”

Being in a car is also safe, as long as it is a hard-top vehicle.

“It can pass around the metal shell of the vehicle and goes into the ground,” he said. “The people inside would be safe.”

Though inside a structure is better than outside, there are still dangers lurking inside during a storm.

“Avoid anything connected to electrical system of the house. Anything you plug in could be dangerous,” he said. “Cell phones and cordless phones are safe inside, but corded phones are not. They provide a connection to the outside.”

Plumbing should also be avoided, as lightning can follow it if the house is struck. Staying away from windows and doors is another tip. It is also a good rule of thumb to stay inside for 30 minutes after the storm has ended.

Jensenius said people who survive after being struck by lightning can sometimes have lifelong injuries, including anything from severe pain to impairment of cognitive skills, brain damage, and short-term memory loss. These symptoms can sometimes be delayed.

Ellen Bryan is a partner of the National Weather Service in the area of lightning safety.

Bryan has been a contestant for the Miss Ohio pageant for the past two years and is planning on competing in pageants again this year. Her platform is the saying of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, “When thunder roars, stay indoors.”

This is dear to Bryan’s heart because of her love for her sister, Christina. Christina was 17 years old and worked at a golf course in Celina, Ohio. On June 13, 2000, Christina was almost finished with her duties when a storm came. She went inside and waited until the rain stopped and only a few clouds remained. She went out to collect the stands as her final job of the day. When she picked one up, she was struck by lightning.

Bryan said Christina was without oxygen for more than 10 minutes and went into cardiac arrest. She said all of Christina’s limbs have been declared as unusable for the rest of her life, she can’t speak and she is fed through a feeding tube. She spent around seven months in the hospital after the incident and it was two years before she could smile again.

Tragedy is said to either bring a family closer together or tear them apart, and for the Bryans, it has brought them closer.

“I think it made us more aware of each other and how lucky we are,” Bryan said. “We appreciate life a lot more.”

As a senior at Ball State, Bryan said she emails her professors if it is storming and tells them she will be about 10 minutes late.

“It’s annoying to work around lightning,” Bryan said. “But it is so severe and can damage anyone’s life. The lightning can still hit you.”

Bryan said when a storm comes, instead of thinking of the rain and inconvenience, she hopes people will think of her sister and what she had to go through.

“Though she is an inspiration, I wouldn’t wishes her lifestyle on anyone,” Bryan said.

“Take a deep breath and know that the 30 minutes it takes for the storm to pass over could save your life,” Bryan said.