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Lightning strikes no laughing matter

By Staff | Jun 17, 2009

In the John Candy/Dan Aykroyd 1988 comedy “The Great Outdoors,” there’s a very funny scene in which they encounter a disheveled man who claims to have been hit in the head by lightning 66 times. To prove this, he displays his hairline: a white streak down the middle of a head of black hair.

“What have you got, kind of a ‘neo-skunk’ thing going for ya?” asks Aykroyd.

While this scenario on the surface is quite humorous, the reality of lightning strikes – especially here in Florida – is no laughing matter.

According to the U.S. National Weather Service, more than 70 people die each year from lightning strikes, while hundreds more suffer life-debilitating injuries. Memory loss, attention deficits, sleep disorders, numbness, dizziness and weakness are some of the maladies cited.

The highest death rates from lightning in the United States are in Florida, which is known as the lightning capital of the country. From 1959 to 2003, lightning killed 3,696 people in the United States. Of those, 425 were in the Sunshine State.

Lightning has injured at least 2,000 people in Florida since 1959.

In response to the concerns voiced by local citizens, the City of Sanibel recently began installing ThorGuard, a device which acts as a Lightning Prediction System.

Last week, members of Sanibel’s Recreation Department installed the system at the Rec Center, which includes their tennis courts, multi-use ball fields and covered pavilion adjacent to The Sanibel School. In addition, ThorGuard will be added to Sanibel Community Park on Periwinkle Way.

Combined, the city has invested more than $33,000 to install the system because, according to City Manager Judie Zimomra, “When you talk about all of the metal structures and pools at those facilities, we all agree that our top priority is to make sure that people in this community are safe.”

Although we are in an era when communities must be spendthifty and frugal, we agree that Sanibel’s investment in a Lightning Prediction System is money well spent.

Be safe and be aware throughout “Lightning Season,” which typically lasts from May to September. Here are some other lightning facts of note:

If you can hear thunder, you are within 10 miles of a storm and can be struck by lightning. Seek shelter and avoid situations in which you may be vulnerable.

Wait at least 30 minutes after the last clap of thunder before leaving shelter. Don’t be fooled by sunshine or blue skies.

The Fourth of July is historically one of the most deadly times of the year for lightning in the U.S. In the summer, especially on a holiday, more people are outside, on the beach, golf course or ball fields. Outdoor jobs such as construction and agriculture, and outdoor chores such as lawn mowing or house painting are at their peak, putting more people in danger.

People on or in or near water are among those most at risk during thunderstorms.

Inside homes, people should stay away from windows and doors and avoid contact with anything that conducts electricity, including landline telephones.

Surge protectors do not protect against direct lightning strikes. Unplug equipment such as computers, stereo equipment and televisions.

Avoid contact with plumbing. Don’t wash your hands, don’t take a shower, don’t wash dishes and don’t do laundry.

Rubber shoes will not give you any meaningful protection from lightning.

Lightning can – and often does – strike in the same place twice. Tall buildings and monuments are frequently hit by lightning.

An automobile with a metal top can offer you some protection, but keep your hands away from the metal sides.

An umbrella can increase your chances of being struck by lightning if it makes you the tallest object in the area.

Always avoid being the highest object anywhere or taking shelter near or under the highest object, including tall trees. Avoid being near a lightning rod or standing near metal objects such as a fence or underground pipes.

– Reporter editorial