There’d been a misty drizzle for some time during our local Parks and Recreation baseball game, when suddenly the sky got ominously dark and the air felt heavy, as if a wet blanket had been draped over me.
My eleven-year-old son Nicholas, picked up his metal bat and went to the plate. A flash of lightning struck in the distance, not once, but twice. Immediately, the coaches and the umpire had the children go into the dugout. We parents waited patiently, thinking our children were gathering their belongings to go home. Two minutes later, the teams reassembled on the field and took their positions.
I called to my son to drop the metal bat and get in the car. After a heated discussion between the coaches, ump and me, they reached the conclusion that I was overreacting, because the storm appeared to be several miles away. Having done previous research on lightning, I stuck to my guns and will be forever grateful that I did. For less than a minute later, we were bombarded with a tremendous thunderstorm with an enormous amount of thunder and lightning.
According to the National Lightning Institute, lightning is the leading cause of weather related personal injuries, because it is the most common weather hazard for sporting events. Virtually every outdoor sport, from tennis to baseball and football to lacrosse has had lightning on occasion.
Lightning strikes somewhere on earth 100 times a second. In the United States alone, there are approximately 100,000 thunderstorms each year. They cause an average of 200 deaths and 700 injuries yearly in the U.S., most of which could be prevented.
What is lightning?
Thunder is created by lightning. If you hear thunder, there’s lightning also, even if you don’t see it. Since the average flash of lightning is 6 miles long, any storm you can hear, will be potentially close enough for you to be at risk. As a matter of fact, once the leading edge of a thunderstorm approaches to within 10 miles, you are at immediate risk. People often ignore that fact, which is why so many lightning casualties occur early on in the storm with clear skies directly overhead, as the storm approaches.
How can you tell how far away the storm is?
Since light travels faster than sound you can do an estimate of the storm’s arrival by counting the seconds between the flash and the thunder. Divide the number by five and that will give you the approximate distance in miles of how far away the lightning is from you. Therefore, if you count ten seconds between the flash and the thunder, the lightning will be a mere two miles away. Successive lightning strikes are often a scant two to three miles apart. Consequently, if the first flash of lightning is two miles away, the next one could hit you.
What you need to know
What should you do if you or a family member is outside when the first sign of trouble brews? When should you leave and where should you go? Is a dugout safe? How about a car or gazebo?
The following recommendations come from both the American Red Cross and the National Lightning Safety Institute.
First and foremost, seek some sort of protection, if at all possible. If getting inside your house quickly isn’t an option, the next best place to be is inside a vehicle (not a convertible) with the windows rolled up. If there is no car available, look for a building of some type or, if all else fails, take shelter under a clump of bushes. (Dugouts are not safe, because they are usually surrounded by metal fences).
Although lightning often strikes the tallest object, it is still better to have no shelter at all than to be in one that is known to attract lightning. Besides dugouts, other areas to avoid are near flag poles, fences or gates, machinery, gazebos, picnic shelters and metal bleachers. Also, stay away from tall trees, water, and open fields. If there is no place to go, or if you feel your hair standing on end (which is a sign that you’re in the lightning’s electric field), make yourself as small a target as possible. Do not lie down. It’s much safer to crouch into a catcher’s stance, with feet together. Put your hands on your knees and duck your head.
If you are fortunate enough to get into your house quickly, still remember that no place is 100% safe. There are precautions to take even then. It’s all right to use electric lights, because they don’t increase the chance of your home being stuck by lightning. However, telephone lines and metal pipes can conduct electricity. Don’t use the telephone, computer or television. Don’t take a shower or a bath and don’t wash dishes. It’s also a good idea to stay away from windows.
Don’t take chances with your loved ones.
Part of our job, as parents, is to protect our children and keep them safe from harm. So I’m glad I listened to my instinct that night at the baseball game. And if a similar situation arises in the future, I’ll do it again. Rather than put my son and the other children at risk, I’ll just have to take a little guff from the coaches and umpire. A few simple precautions and a little common sense are often all that’s needed to avert a tragedy.#