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Never take risk with lightning

By TERRY TOMALIN

© St. Petersburg Times,
published July 8, 2001


BOCA GRANDE PASS -- For more than an hour we watched the thunderhead roll slowly toward us.

"We better get out of here," I told the captain. "That looks ugly."

As the lightningmaker crept closer, we hunkered down on the stern and kissed the deck. First came the wind, then the rain.

Boom! A bolt struck less than a mile away. As the heavens erupted, we raced back to the marina and I swore I would never get caught in a lightning storm again.

Like most who fish, it wasn't the first time. And it probably won't be the last.

On Monday morning, I returned to work, turned on my computer and probably would have forgotten about the incident had it not been for an e-mail from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

"Lightning Kills," it read. "Play it safe."

The public awareness campaign, aimed at golfers (a group as high risk as boaters), offered some startling statistics.

During the past 30 years, lightning strikes have killed an average of 73 people a year. That is more than tornadoes or hurricanes. Last year, 51 people were killed by lightning to 37 flood casualties and 29 tornado deaths.

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," etc. 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."

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.

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