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Lightning precautions can save you from electrocution

This lightning bolt came close to zapping nature photographer C.J. McManus last year.

Sun Advocate publisher

While many thunderstorms come through the local area day after day in July and August, most situations find people in places where they are safe.

But what if one finds themselves outside with really no where to go for protection? And what really is protection?

Where to go and what is safe can be confusing to people, because in an effort to avoid getting wet by the rain a storm might put down, one can also find themselves putting their well being in danger.

In the case of Toni Madrid from East Carbon, she was trying to do the right thing, but got caught by lightning before she could do it.

Madrid was with her family in the desert near ECDC one Saturday in early September two years ago. A storm came in quickly so being with several small children she ran with them back to the vehicle to get out of the rain. Just as she lifted her six year old into the Jeep a bolt of lightning hit the area. She was thrown 10 feet backwards and stopped breathing for at least a couple of minutes.

"I remember putting my hand on the door and then everything went black," she told the Sun Advocate's CJ McManus after the incident. "When I came to I couldn't even breathe. Everything was paralyzed and it took a few minutes before I could even talk."

Her husband Rick drove her to Highway 123 where the met an ambulance and she was taken to the hospital for treatment. She was sore and numb for some time after the strike.

Out in the open; rain coming down; people to protect. What would you do?

Well, the answers vary, but most importantly many involved in lightning safety say it is better to get wet than shocked. Often some of the things people do to get out of the rain can lead to more exposure to lightning.

According to the National Weather Service each year, about 400 children and adults in the U.S. are struck by lightning while working outside, at sports events, on the beach, mountain climbing, mowing the lawn, or during other outdoor activities. While a small percentage of lightning strike victims die (between 40-50 based on figures from the Associated Press), many survivors must learn to live with very serious lifelong pain and neurological disabilities. Many of these tragedies can be avoided. Finishing a game, getting a tan, completing an outdoor project, or seeing what is around that next bend while on a hike isn't worth the risk of death or a debilitating injury. On average, at least 10 percent of strike victims die and 70 percent of survivors suffer serious long term effects.

While it would seem distance is a good way to measure the chances of being struck by a bolt from any particular storm, the fact is that if you can hear thunder at all, you can be at risk. The best way to avoid getting struck by lightening is to not go outside while a storm is nearby, and don't plan to spend a day out in the open when thunderstorms are predicted.

Of course for most eastern Utahns this last suggestion is almost laughable. People from the area almost live outside. So more than avoiding going somewhere, what can people do to protect themselves?

First of all look for darkening skies, flashes of lightning, or increasing wind, which may be signs of an approaching thunderstorm.

The fact is that most people who get struck by lightning are not in the rain. If possible when a storm comes through go inside a completely enclosed building. If no enclosed building is convenient, get inside a hard-topped all-metal vehicle.

Be the lowest point in your surroundings. Lightning usually strikes the tallest object. If you are in the mountains and above the timberline, you are the highest object around. Quickly get below the timberline.

If you can't get to a shelter, stay away from trees. Keep twice as far away from a tree as it is tall. That might mean standing in a gully (to be low) in the pouring rain.

Avoid leaning against vehicles. Get off bicycles and motorcycles.

Get out of or off the water if in a watercraft. Water is a great conductor of electricity. Stay off the shoreline and out of small boats or canoes. If caught in a boat, keep away from metal objects not grounded to the vessel's protection system. Swimming, wading, snorkeling, and scuba diving are not safe activities during a lightning storm. Lightning can strike the water and travel some distance beneath and away from its point of contact.

Drop metal backpacks and stay away from clothes lines, fences, exposed sheds, and electrically conductive elevated objects. Don't hold on to metal items such as golf clubs, fishing rods, tennis rackets, or tools. Large metal objects can conduct lightning.

Move away from a group of people. Spread out at least 15 feet apart. Don't share a bleacher bench or huddle in a group.

Those who warn people about lightnings dangers also are concerned that people think a shelter, any shelter is safe. But it is not true. A house or other substantial building offers the best protection from lightning. For a shelter to provide protection from lightning, it must contain a mechanism for conducting the electrical current from the point of contact to the ground. On the outside, lightning can travel along the outer shell of the building or may follow metal gutters and downspouts to the ground. Inside a structure, lightning can follow conductors, such as the electrical wiring, plumbing, and telephone lines. Unless specifically designed to be lightning safe, small structures do little, if anything, to protect occupants from lightning. A shelter that does not contain plumbing or wiring throughout, or some other mechanism for grounding from the roof to the ground, is not safe.

The three primary ways lightning enters homes and buildings are through a direct strike on the building, through the wires or pipes that extend outside the structure itself and through the ground. Regardless of the method of entrance, once in a structure, the lightning can travel through the electrical, phone, plumbing, and radio/television reception systems. Handling anything that is attached to what the lightning is conducted through can be dangerous. Do not use landline phones (corded) and if you fear damage to electronic equipment, unplug it before the storm gets to where you are. Do not wash your hands, wash dishes or take a shower. Contrary to popular thought lightning can go through windows and it can, and does strike people on porches even of buildings that are set up to absorb lightning.

Even concrete can be a problem. Contact by leaning against a concrete wall or laying on a floor can be deadly because most concrete has rebar or other metal in it for strength. That can conduct electricity.

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