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Being outdoors perilous during thunderstorms

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. — The deaths of two people at a scenic overlook in
northern Arizona this week bring to 14 the number of people killed by lightning
strikes in the U.S. this year, according to the National Weather Service. Many
of the victims were enjoying summertime activities like sightseeing, boating,
camping and fishing. Weather experts say when thunderstorms roar, you should get
out of the water, drop the sporting equipment and flee to a safe area inside a
building or a vehicle.


Lightning flashes some 30 million times per year in the continental United
States, mostly from cloud to cloud, said Richard Orville, professor at Texas A&M
University’s Department of Atmospheric Sciences. About 10 percent of lightning
hits the ground, where it can travel through trees, soil, plumbing and electric
wiring. Those cloud-to-cloud strikes start about 15 minutes before the ground
strikes and thunder will roar, giving people a heads-up on when to seek shelter,
Orville said. “It’s not a hard rule, there are exceptions to it. But in terms
of a guideline, it works.” The National Weather Service advises people to stay
indoors 30 minutes after that first flash of lightning or clap of thunder.


Arizona and Florida are leading the nation so far this year in lightning
fatalities, with three each. Places like Florida and Texas that have the right
combination of moisture and heat have lightning strikes year-round, but in
Arizona they are most common during the monsoon season. The couple that was
killed Tuesday near Jacob Lake, Ariz., was sitting beneath a rock wall at a
scenic overlook that got hit by lightning, authorities said. Others killed this
year have been under trees in Missouri and New York, fishing on a boat in
Louisiana, walking on the beach in Florida, camping in California and at a park
in Illinois.


Your odds of being struck by lightning depend on where you live, the climate,
how much time you spend outdoors and the time of year. People in the central
Florida peninsula where the lightning concentration is the highest in the United
States, according to the National Weather Service, are more likely to be hit by
lightning than people in the Pacific northwest where thunderstorms are rare.

“People in this region who spend much of their lives indoors might win the
lottery before they were struck by lightning,” the weather bureau said.

Knowing where lightning will strike is mostly unpredictable, weather experts
say. While it tends to favor tall, isolated objects it “has a mind of its
own,” said Chris Outler, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in
Flagstaff. “It will really do what it wants.”


Most lightning deaths occur between June and August when people are outdoors
enjoying the warmer weather, according to the National Weather Service. Nearly
two-thirds of the 238 people killed by lightning in the past seven years were
enjoying recreational activities _ a number that varied from 26 in 2011 to 48 in
2006, according to a study by lightning safety specialist John Jensenius Jr. The
study dispels the myth that golfers are highest on the fatality list. Fishing
led the list of 12 activities that accounted for more than half of the deaths
from 2006 to 2012, followed by camping and boating. Golfing came in at No. 9.


When inside, weather experts say you should unplug electric appliances, avoid
talking on a phone that’s connected to the wall and not take a shower or bath
when thunderstorms are brewing. A few years ago, Orville’s home sustained $5,000
in damage when lightning hit a tree in his backyard, moving through electrical
circuits and destroying the garage door opener, washer and dryer and lighting in
the swimming pool.


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