A huge bolt of lightning hits offshore Belleair Beach June 26. A Brandon woman died on Belleair Beach May 28 when she was struck by a bolt of lightning. The last week of June was especially stormy with many lightning strikes and reports of waterspouts and funnel clouds. More of the same is forecast for the coming week.
Summer time storms can be deadly. Lightning is one of the biggest hazards, coming in second to flooding as the top weather-related killer.
Making the public aware of the danger was the goal of Lightning Safety Awareness Week, June 23-29.
“Summer is the peak season for one of the nation's deadliest weather phenomena – lightning,” according to the National Weather Service. “Though lightning strikes peak in summer, people are struck year round. In the United States, an average of 53 people are killed each year by lightning, and hundreds more are severely injured.”
Florida tops the charts when it comes to deaths attributed to lightning with 468 occurring from 1959-2012. Texas ranks No. 2 for the same period with 215 deaths. Tampa Bay is in the top three areas in the state for the number of lightning strikes that occur each year.
Eight people have died from lightning thus far in 2013, including a 51-year-old Brandon woman who was struck by lightning while walking on Belleair Beach May 28. Two more people have died from lightning in Florida this year – a 57-year-old male fishing from a boat in Lake Okeechobee June 8 and a 35-year-old male climbing down scaffolding in Naples June 26.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released a study June 24 that showed 64 percent of lightning deaths since 2006 occurred while people were participating in leisure activities. John Jensenius, a lightning safety specialist with the National Weather Service, conducted the study and examined demographic information for 238 deaths from lightning over the past seven years.
Jensenius found that of the 152 deaths association with leisure activities, fishing was No. 1 with 26 deaths. Camping came in second with 15 deaths and boating was next with 14 deaths. Twelve died while playing soccer and eight were golfing. The other 77 people struck by lightning were either spending time on the beach, swimming, walking, running, riding a recreational vehicle, picnicking or relaxing in their yard. Twelve people died while mowing the lawn.
Jensenius said the larger number of deaths from people who were fishing, camping and boating is likely due to the time it takes to get to a safe place.
“People often wait far too long to head to safety when a storm is approaching, and that puts them in a dangerous and potentially deadly situation,” he said.
Before the death on Belleair Beach, the last recorded lightning fatality in Pinellas County was a 16-year-old boy who was struck while out on Treasure Island Beach with his mother in 2007. Reports said he was on his way to a safe location when the lightning bolt struck.
Males are more likely victims
Jensenius also pointed out that 82 percent of the victims killed by lightning were male, and 90 percent of those deaths were in the fishing and sports categories. Females had fewer deaths than males in every category with the most killed while boating or doing routine activities.
Jensenius offers several reasons why males are killed more often, including that they may not be aware of all the dangers associated with lightning. He also said males are more likely to be in vulnerable situations and may be unwilling to be inconvenienced by the threat of lightning. Other explanations include more males being in situations that make it more difficult to get to a safe place quickly or that men don’t react fast enough to the threat of lighting.
“In short, because of their behavior, males are at a higher risk of being struck and consequently are struck and killed by lightning more often than females.”
NOAA and NWS are focusing on males and people who enjoy leisure activities this year to get the word out that many lightning deaths are preventable. In 2001, officials reached out to golfing communities and since that time, lightning deaths on the golf course decreased by 75 percent. Prior to NWS beginning its annual lightning safety campaign, lightning killed an average of 73 people each year in the United States. The average now has dropped to 37.
June, July, and August, the peak months for lightning, coincide with the peak months for outdoor summer activities. About 70 percent of the lightning deaths occur in the months of June, July, and August, with Saturdays and Sundays having slightly more deaths than other days of the week.
NOAA advises people to protect themselves against lightning dangers by monitoring the weather and cancelling outdoor activities when thunderstorms are in the forecast. A number of venues canceled outdoor events last week. Clearwater moved its last Friday Blast of the season June 28 from Cleveland Street indoors to Ruth Eckerd Hall due to the possibility of thunderstorms.
The National Weather Service uses the catch phrase, “When it roars, go indoors” to bring home the message that lightning can strike from as far as 10 miles away. Officials want people to know if they can hear thunder, they are in danger of being struck by lightning.
The only safe places to be during a thunderstorm are in a building with four walls and a roof or in a car. A hut, cabana, tent, or other rain shelter will not protect a person from being struck by lightning.
When indoors, do not touch anything that is plugged into an electrical outlet. Stay away from plumbing and do not use corded phones. Cell phones and cordless phones are safe. Also, keep away from outside doors and windows and do not lie on a garage floor.