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No time to play with lightning

By TERRY TOMALIN, Times Outdoors Editor
© St. Petersburg Times
published May 19, 2002

Running to my truck through a torrential downpour Thursday afternoon, a bolt of lightning flashed nearby and gave me quite a shock.

If it had been the middle of the summer, when thunderstorms are a daily occurrence, I wouldn't have thought twice about it.

But it has been a long time -- last summer to be exact -- since I have been caught in an electrical storm and my guard was down.

But it is that season again ... time to look out for stingrays, sharks, alligators, poison ivy, heat stroke and, of course, the biggest killer, lightning strikes.

During the past 30 years, lightning has killed 73 people a year. That is more than tornadoes or hurricanes.

Florida leads the nation in strikes and lightning-related deaths. Ninety percent of victims survive but usually face years of difficult physical therapy.

So how to improve your odds?

For starters, keep a weather radio or VHF on the boat and listen for reports of approaching storms. If you only have an AM/FM, turn to AM and listen for the static caused by electrical storms.

If you see a storm building, head for port. A boat is usually the highest point on the water. Electrical antennas, outriggers and aluminum towers are natural lightning rods. Don't get caught in the open.

If you hear buzzing sounds on radio antennas or a masthead begins to glow, you are in danger. The phenomenon, known as St. Elmo's Fire, is caused by an extreme buildup of electricity and lightning may strike the mast within five minutes after it begins to glow.

If you see a flash of lightning, and wonder how far away it is, forget trying to figure it out by counting "one Mississippi, two Mississippi, three Mississippi ... "

The most practical safety guide is the 30-30 rule.

The first "30" stands for 30 seconds. If you see a flash of lightning, count to 30. If you hear the thunder before you are done, the lightning is probably close enough to hit you.

The second "30" stands for 30 minutes. After the last flash of lightning, wait 30 minutes before leaving your safe area.

More than half of all lightning deaths occur after a storm has passed. Some of the most powerful lightning often occurs at the front and rear of storms, hence the phrase "a bolt out of the blue."

Lightning can strike as far as 10 miles from the thunderstorm. "If you hear it, clear it," goes the adage. "If you see it, flee it."

If you are caught on the beach during a storm, stay out of the "tidal area." Water is an excellent conductor of electricity. So is wet sand. A bolt of lightning can strike down the beach, travel along the wet sand and pack quite a wallop.

Do the lifeguards a favor and head to the parking lot when the sky lights up. They can't seek safety until the beach is clear.

To learn more about lightning, log on to www.lightningsafety.noaa.gov.

Another good resource is a new publication from the Mountaineers Books called Lightning Strikes: Staying Safe Under Stormy Skies ($12.95). Written by meteorologist Jeff Renner, the book explains how thunderstorms form and provides strategies for staying safe using the four A's (anticipate, assess, act and aid.)

At any given second, about 200 lightning strikes hit the earth. It is estimated that about one out of five people struck by lightning die, which is why Renner's book would make an important addition to any outdoors enthusiast's library.

Play it safe. Forget the old adage that lightning never strikes twice (the Empire State building gets hit more than 20 times a year). Learn the facts and make it to next summer.

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