August 3, 2004
Mississippians urged to have a lightning safety plan, to be alert for signs of trouble
By Susan Christensen
Health and Research News Service
JACKSON, Miss.—If thunder is crashing, you better be dashing inside.
Outdoors is no place to be during a dangerous lightening storm, says Lauren Fairburn, coordinator of Think First, Methodist Rehabilitation Center’s statewide injury prevention program.
“When a thunderstorm approaches, many people wait until it begins raining to take shelter and that delay could prove deadly,” she says. “According to the National Weather Service, most people struck by lightening are not in the rain.”
The National Weather Service reports that more than 400 people in the United States are struck by lightening each year and about 70 people are killed.
Mississippi recorded 14 lightening fatalities in the years from 1990 to 2003, but was not among the six southern states listed in the top 10 for lightening deaths. The Sunshine State of Florida ranks first on that list—126 people were killed by lightening there in the same time period.
Ten to 20 percent of lightning victims die—usually of cardiac arrest. Of those that survive, many are left with permanent disabilities.
Joyce Leverenz, admissions coordinator for Quest, Methodist’s community reintegration program for brain injury survivors, says she has seen firsthand the devastating power of lightning. She once worked for a brain injury program in Texas, the state with the second highest number of lightning deaths.
“I saw more than five lightening victims and most of them had memory problems,” she said. “We usually got a referral months after the lightening strike because they were found to have cognitive and memory problems after going back to work. Most of them also had nervous system complaints, pain and achiness that no one could quite figure out.”
Methodist neuropsychologist Dr. Samuel Gontkovsky says lightning may affect various systems of the body, including the cardiac, respiratory and central nervous systems.
“Electrical current has an affinity for the low resistance pathways of the nervous system,” he said. “Cognitive deficits can range from transient confusion to permanent memory loss, depending on the severity of the injury. Some people even experience reduced visual reaction times.”
Other symptoms related to lightning injuries include attention deficits, sleep disorders, numbness, dizziness, stiffness in joints, irritability, fatigue, weakness, muscle spasms, depression and the inability to sit for long.
The National Weather Service reports that about a third of all lightning injuries occur on the job. Workers at highest risks are those who labor outdoors in open spaces, near tall objects, with explosives or with conductive materials such as metal.
Another third of lightning incidents involve people engaged in recreational or sports activities and summer is a peak time for such injuries. This past June, for example, three people were killed and six injured while trying to escape a thunderstorm at Georgia’s Lake Lanier.
“To avoid such disasters, it’s really important for families to have a lightening safety plan and to be alert for signs of trouble,” Fairburn says. “Darkening skies, flashes of lightning and increasing wind mean a thunderstorm is approaching and it’s time to seek shelter.”
To stay safe, Fairburn recommends observing the following tips provided by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA):
- Listen for Thunder. That rumble means lightening is close enough to strike your location, even if the skies above are clear and blue. Lightening can leap from clouds up to 10 miles away, and at least 10 percent of lightening occurs when no clouds are overhead.
- Seek Proper Shelter. Your safest shelter is a completely enclosed building – not an open garage or covered patio. Once inside, stay off corded phones and steer clear of any wiring or plumbing. If an enclosed building is not available, get inside a hard-topped, all-metal vehicle with the windows closed and avoid touching any metal.
- Don’t be outstanding in your field. If you’re stranded outdoors, make sure you’re the lowest point. Avoid open areas and stay away from trees, towers, utility poles, metal bleachers, backstops and fences. Lightning can travel long distances through metal.
- Bail out of water. Water is a great conductor of electricity and the last place to be in an electrical storm. Stay off the beach and out of the ocean, pool or small boats. If stuck in a boat, crouch down in the center away from hardware.
- If you feel a tingle, duck and cover. If your hair stands on end, that’s a sign lightning is about to strike. If that happens, drop into a crouch on the balls of your feet, bend your head down and cover your ears. You want to be as small a target as possible and have minimal contact with the ground. Stay several yards away from other people.
- Wait out the Storm. Stay in your shelter until there’s no thunder for at least 30 minutes.