Thunder and Lightning

Dangers of Thunder & Lightning

Lightning is one of nature’s deadliest and most unpredictable phenomena. Meteorologists can accurately forecast the general conditions that will cause lightning, but no one knows for sure exactly where and when a lightning bolt will strike.

According to the National Weather Service, since 1959, the three southeast Florida counties of Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach have experienced a combined 94 lightning deaths, the most of any three contiguous counties in the United States. This includes 35 deaths in Miami-Dade County, 32 in Broward County and 27 in Palm Beach County.

During any given year, lightning kills an average of two people in South Florida, with an additional nine people injured. The total number of South Florida lightning casualties reported in 2009 is very close to the yearly averages, with two deaths and five injuries attributed to lightning. An estimated $154,000 in damage was caused by lightning, mainly as a result of lightning directly striking homes and other buildings.

Safety Alarms

Ocean Rescue headquarters receives a warning alert via the telephone by WeatherBug. The automated system tells Ocean Rescue personnel the distance of lightning strikes from the location.  Ocean Rescue personnel then issues a warning to their field personnel via the radio and the public at risk is notified and urged to seek shelter.

Parks and Recreation personnel receive a warning alert via the telephone by WeatherBug, when lightning is approximately six miles out.  The alert is sent to staffed parks, youth centers, and all pools.  Parks and Recreation staff (via phone tree) call around and inform other staff of lightning warning. Parks and Recreation personnel clear out all pools, all programs from fields and playgrounds until they receive the “all clear” notification call from WeatherBug.

Dangerous Misperceptions

It only strikes when dark clouds are directly overhead. Several cases in the past few years have proven this to be false.

Lightning commonly strikes several miles away from the heavy rain area of the thunderstorm, and in some cases can strike up to 10 miles away or more! This type of lightning is misleadingly referred to as “dry lightning” or “bolts from the blue,” but they actually originate from the side of a thunderstorm cloud and are just as deadly as those that occur in the middle of a heavy downpour. Therefore, the greatest danger often comes with the first or last flash because that’s when people least expect lightning to strike.

Recent studies have shown that teenage boys are the most likely group to be killed by lightning in Florida. The age group from 10 to 19 years of age has the greatest number of deaths, followed by those in their 30s and 20s. The number of 10 to 19 year old lightning deaths is greater than the number of lightning deaths of those 40 and older.

Here’s a simple lightning safety tip that can save your life

When you see lightning or hear thunder, head to the nearest safe building. The inside of a vehicle can also be used as a place of shelter only if there are no buildings nearby. Darkening clouds are usually the first sign that lightning may strike nearby.

Although the National Weather Service does not issue specific lightning warnings, products such as the Hazardous Weather Outlook and the Surf Forecast describe the daily lightning danger in south Florida on a scale ranging from none, to slight, to moderate to high. When a storm producing excessive lightning is observed or is imminent, a special weather statement is issued to alert of its location. Checking these products before venturing outside can make the difference between life and death.

Remember, any thunderstorm can produce a lightning flash which can kill you and those nearby.

Some locations are more dangerous than others. The greatest numbers of people in Florida are struck while near a body of water. Many others are struck while standing under trees. Another vulnerable location is an open area with few trees such as a ball field, playground or golf course. School related activities also rate high in lightning vulnerability. These include walking to and from school and after school events.

The large number of high rise buildings in South Florida also puts construction workers and even residents in upper floors at a greater risk since tall objects are struck by lightning much more frequently than objects close to the ground.