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Hazards Strike Home In ‘The Lightning Capital Of The U.S.’
By Mitch Traphagen
Jul 21, 2006, 23:22

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Lightning kills more people in Florida than all other weather related phenomena combined - including hurricanes. And while no place is completely safe from lightning, there are ways to protect yourself. Photo Courtesy of NOAA and the National Severe Storms Laboratory
– It is a steady, methodical killer – in fact it kills far more people thana any other source in its category. Far too often, however, people ignore it and become complacent. It won’t happen to them, they think. And while hurricanes make the news, lightning continues on as the leading cause of weather related deaths in Florida.

Between the years 1959 and 1993, hurricanes were responsible for 8.7 percent of weather related deaths in the state. Tornadoes were nearly 13 percent. But all pale in comparison to lightning - which was responsible for more than 53 percent of deaths. During those years, lightning killed 351 people in Florida (an average of 10 people per year) and injured nearly 1,200. According to the National Weather Service, the odds are roughly one in four that you will be killed if lightning strikes you.

Florida leads the nation in deaths caused by lightning. The reasons for that are straightforward – Florida has both a high population and typically a large amount of lightning. In Hillsborough County, 32 people were killed by lightning between 1959 and 2003 – a number matched only by Miami-Dade County.

Only South and Central America, tropical Africa and Asia tend to have more lightning than Florida. Rwanda in Africa is generally considered to be the lightning capital of the world. But that is a fine distinction as Florida – and more specifically Hillsborough County – is thought to be the lightning capital of the U.S.

In many ways it is a matter of being in the right place at the right time. The right place, of course, is indoors away from things that draw lightning. When thunder is heard and lightning is visible, many experts recommend that people seek shelter inside of a home or vehicle. Trees and bodies of water – even canals – are considered dangerous. The "right time" is problematic as most lightning strikes occur in the month of July – a time when school is out and more people are out of doors. As a result, teenage boys tend to be the most likely victims, followed by people in the 30s and 20s, respectively.

But sometimes even being in the right place isn’t enough. Two South County residents recently discovered that lightning could have an impact even if you are inside of your vehicle or home.

Raymond Galusha, 51, of Brooksville was struck by lightning while waiting in traffic at a train crossing in Gibsonton. Lightning struck the train, jumped to a vehicle ahead of him and then struck him. Unfortunately Galusha reportedly had his arm resting on the vehicles metal window frame. He was briefly hospitalized and released.

Jean Spisak of Ruskin was inside of her home during one of the recent thunderstorms that have rolled through the area. She actually saw the lightning strike that hit her home.

"It was raining really hard and I was sitting at my desk when I saw a huge orange ball and then I heard the boom," Spisak said. "It shook everything but I didn’t realize that it hit me. I went out to talk to the neighbors and they heard it and it really shook their house. So I decided to see where that ball had hit and looked at the roof and saw steam coming off of it. I went back into the house and it was already filling up with smoke."

Spisak called Hillsborough County Fire Rescue. The lightning had burned walls and even blew a large trench into her backyard but fire officials never found the actual point of entry.

Her insurance company contacted a fire restoration company to begin the process of cleaning her home. Her clothes had to be cleaned or discarded. All of the furniture had to be cleaned and some of the carpet replaced. Walls and ceilings were repaired and her air condition system had to be replaced.

Spisak had nothing but praise for Hillsborough Fire Rescue, State Farm Insurance and the fire restoration company, Paul Davis Systems. But that in the split second it took for the lightning to strike, her world changed. In addition to the inconvenience and expense of the repairs to her home, she is now even more wary about the power of lightning. Ironically, her single-story home is one of the smallest on her street. The neighboring home, which wasn’t hit, is three stories tall.

Lightning is powerful enough to defy conventional wisdom. Experts say that rubber soled shoes or rubber car tires will not protect you from a strike. The metal body of a vehicle, however, will provide protection – assuming, of course, that you are not in contact with the metal. Despite Galusha’s experience, you are thought to be far safer inside of a vehicle than outside. And being inside a home or building is considered the safest of all.

With that in mind, however, the National Weather Service states that no place is absolutely safe from lightning. The NWS suggests staying away from electrical appliances and plumbing fixtures as lightning can travel a great distance through wiring or metal plumbing. They also recommend against using corded telephones or computers connected to telephone lines and electrical outlets.

And while permanent structures such as homes and other buildings are the most safe, some structures such as beach shacks, metal sheds, picnic shelters, carports and baseball dugouts provide no safety from a strike. Vehicles such as cars and buses are generally safe (away from the metal frames) but convertibles – even with the top up – provide no lightning protection at all.

The NWS suggests that Floridians follow the "30/30 Rule" to safeguard against becoming a victim of lightning. According to their research, lightning can strike more than 10 miles away from the center of a thunderstorm – a distance beyond the audible range of thunder. Therefore, if you do hear thunder, you are in striking range of lightning. The 30/30 Rule states that if the "flash to bang" time - from seeing lightning to hearing the thunderclap - is 30 seconds or less seek shelter immediately – and remain sheltered until 30 minutes after the last thunder clap.

That rule, however, is of limited use should a thunderstorm form overhead as can happen in the Tampa Bay area. As such, the best advice is to be aware and to keep an eye on the skies. Having a portable NOAA weather radio when camping or spending time outdoors will also help to be prepared. In this area, thunderstorms and the associated lightning can form with incredible speed out of seemingly clear blue skies. The radios are widely available at electronics stores and other locations.

Lightning is one of Florida’s greatest silent killers and while you may not be able to completely ensure the safety of your home, you can take steps to ensure your personal safety – and to avoid becoming the next victim.

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© Copyright 2007 by The Observer News Publications and M&M Printing Company, Inc.

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