A special thanks to Robert Little and his team from the Little Group for this material.
Lightning is a dangerous yet often-overlooked weather phenomenon. A number of things happen to people who are struck by lightning. Often, they suffer from third degree burns, burst ear drums, singed clothing and singed hair. Any metal touching the body during a lightning strike can cause deep, searing burns. Many people experience cardiac or respiratory arrest, seizures, and coma, and around 10% of the people struck by lightning die from the experience. According to the CDC, lighting caused an average of 35 deaths annually in the years between 2003 to 2012. Although the statistics might sound scary, lightning-related injuries and deaths are often preventable. Recognizing the signs of a lightning storm, taking shelter when the time is right, and knowing what to do in the event of a lightning strike can help you avoid terrible injury. Understanding the danger and taking precautions could save your life. Here’s what you need to know.
First Things First: Taking Shelter from Lightning
The saying goes, when thunder roars, go indoors. Although lightning can strike anywhere, buildings and homes are typically safer than outdoor locations.
Unfortunately, storms can arise when home is nowhere nearby. People caught outdoors in the event of a lightning strike can still protect themselves by going to the lowest point in the landscape, and by distancing themselves from taller objects in the landscape. If you’re in a lightning storm far from home, these tips can help.
Ideal: Find an Enclosed Shelter
While a fully enclosed building is best, a hard-topped enclosed shelter, like a car or van, will help protect you. Many people believe that cars offer protection because of the rubber tires in contact with the ground, but this is not the case.
The real protection comes from the metal roof, which will distribute the charge from the lightning through the frame of the car, shielding occupants from the worst damage. Roll up the windows and close the doors. Avoid standing in open-air shelters, like a picnic shelter. Picnic shelters offer no protection and can even be a lightning target if they’re taller than other objects in the landscape.
Avoid Tall Objects in the Landscape
Avoid standing next to any tall objects like trees or flagpoles. Do not stand under a tree. The tree will not protect you in any way, and if lightning does strike the tree, a charge could spread through the ground and electrocute you.
Lightning is attracted to the tallest point in the landscape. If you’re not able to find an enclosed shelter, look for dips in the road, small ravines, gutters or any low point in the landscape. Crouch down to make yourself as small as possible.
Do not lie down! If lightning strikes and spreads a charge through the ground, laying down will only increase your exposure to the charge. Crouching limits your exposure while making you less of a target.
Avoid Bodies of Water
When lightning strikes water, the charge spreads across the surface. A lightning strike on a body of water could conduct a charge to you if you are also touching the water. Stay away from ponds, pools, lakes and even puddles. This advice extends to those taking shelter indoors.
Rubber-Soled Shoes Will Not Help
It’s a common belief that rubber-soled shoes will protect people from lightning. Wearing shoes with rubber soles does nothing to prevent a lightning strike or injury. The best way to protect yourself if you’re caught in an electrical storm is to go indoors.
Does Lightning Pose a Threat While Indoors?
Generally speaking, the safest place you can be in the event of an electrical storm is inside a building with four walls and a roof. However, just because you’re indoors does not mean that you’re completely safe.
How Does Lightning Enter the Home?
Lightning can enter the home through any material that is a conductor of electricity. This includes:
- Metal conduits
Many people are surprised to learn that concrete can be a conductor of electricity. This is because concrete is held in place by metal rebar. The lightning is conducted through the concrete by the rebar. Lightning can even enter the home through an open window or door, if one is nearby.
Precautions you can take include:
- Keep the windows and doors shut
- Avoid touching water or plumbing fixtures
- Unplug appliances that can be unplugged
- Stay away from electrical appliances that cannot be easily unplugged
Have a Plan for Severe Weather
Lightning can strike objects up to 15 miles away, which means that you can be struck indoors by a storm you can’t even see. Staying alert, knowing about local weather systems, and having a plan in place can help you avoid catastrophe.
As you develop your plan, talk to your family and everyone in your household. Doing this raises awareness that could save the life of someone you love.
Warning Systems and Alerts
In the United States, there are a variety of weather warning systems that can alert people to different hazardous weather conditions. Public warning sirens, television alerts, radio alerts and cell phone alerts tell the public when a tornado is nearby. The Alert Ready system in Canada uses television, radio and wireless devices to alert people to dangers.
However, these emergency systems may not alert the public about simple thunderstorms. Some minor storms are not serious enough to warrant an emergency alert.
Normal weather reports and predictions are often the best way for people to find out when a dangerous weather system is moving through the area. Listen to your local weather report and pay attention to your cell phone weather apps. If your cell phone app reports that towns nearby are experiencing severe weather, be vigilant and stay indoors (even if there seems to be no thunderstorm near you).
Identify the Safest Rooms In Your House
The ideal room during a thunderstorm is one with no windows and no concrete. However, few homes have rooms without windows, and those that do (like the basement) are often made of concrete. Stay away from rooms with metal faucets (kitchen and bathroom). Spend time in an area where you can keep yourself occupied, either by reading a book or doing something else that does not involve use of an electrical appliance.
In many areas, thunderstorms can also bring tornadoes. If this should happen, be ready to head to the basement. If your home has no basement, a closet is best.
Lightning can do serious damage to a home, if it strikes the structure. Lightning can cause power outages that can render refrigerators and electrical stoves unusable. In fact, thunderstorms can affect the world around you in many ways. Keep the right supplies on hand, just in case your home should be struck by lightning.
Stock food that can be eaten without being cooked, like canned vegetables, dry cereal, canned baked beans and crackers. Granola bars and protein bars are also an excellent choice.
Floods can pollute the water supply. Under the right circumstances, drinking water from the tap can become hazardous. Bottled water is best. Keep emergency bottled water on hand, at least one gallon of water per person per day.
In addition to food and water, you’ll need flashlights, blankets and a first aid kit. First aid kits come pre-made. You do not need anything special or specific in your first aid kit to treat someone who has been struck by lightning. The best way to help a victim of lightning strike is to lay them down with their head slightly lower than their torso and legs.
Lightning rods are designed to create a safe path for lightning to travel in the event that it strikes your house. Lightning rods do not deter lightning strikes, but they do help ensure that if lightning strikes your house, it is unlikely to do lasting damage.
Lightning rods are not for everyone. Below are some downsides to consider:
Lightning rods change the profile of a home. A tall rod can stand many feet over the top of a house. Smaller rods are shorter, but more of them must be installed in order for the house to be properly protected.
Some of the most expensive lightning rods can cost a few thousand dollars. Less expensive rods can cost under $100, but several must be installed at one time in order to be effective.
Home Lightning Protection Systems
Lightning rods do not offer full protection. For better protection, the homeowner must install a home lightning protection system, consisting of a lightning rod, grounding system and surge protector.
When most people think of a surge protector, they think of a power strip that protects appliances from lightning surges. Surge protector strips are an effective way to protect expensive home appliances from lightning surges, however, these localized devices only work for the electrical items plugged into the strip.
They also do not offer full protection, as some damage can still be done to the appliance that is plugged in. For full-house protection, a full-house surge protector must be installed. These systems are hard-wired into the electrical box and must be installed by an electrician.
A grounding system is designed to direct a surge from a lightning strike safely into the ground. Grounding systems prevent electrical shocks and can also help protect appliances that have been plugged in.
One of the ways that you can protect your house from lightning is by giving careful thought to your landscaping.
When lightning strikes a tree near a home, serious damage can be done. Some trees are destroyed by the strike, others are injured so deeply that they eventually die. Any nearby tree struck by lightning may fall onto your house and cause serious injury as well as structural damage. You can prevent this from happening by keeping trees a minimum distance away from your property.
The distance between the house and tree should depend on the size of the tree. As a general rule, trees should be at least 10 feet away from your home’s foundation, and potentially much farther (if the tree is particularly large). Keep branches trim so they’re not hanging over the house.
Tall trees can be fitted with a lightning protection system to direct lightning to the ground. These protection systems work well to protect trees from damage.
When trees around the home are struck by lightning, other things in the area may be damaged as well. For example, sometimes lightning will jump from the tree to the nearby house, where the gutters are a better conductor of electricity.
Other times, lightning may jump from the tree into the ground, where the charge damages the in-ground sprinkler system. Work with an electrician and lightning expert to protect your home and landscaping.
During the Storm
You have a 1 in 3,000 chance of being hit by lightning sometime during your lifetime. The best way to stay safe while a storm is taking place is to go inside.
When should you go inside? Watch for warning signs of a storm, such as:
- Sudden drop in temperature
- Cool breezes
- Sounds of distant thunder
- Puffy, heavy clouds with darker undersides
- Sudden change in the direction of the wind
A barometer will also tell you if a storm is coming. Watch for a rapid drop in pressure: this is an indication that a storm is on the way.
If you see lightning, count backwards from 30. If the thunder clap takes less than 30 seconds to reach you, the storm is less than six miles away. Under these circumstances, stay indoors. Wait at least a half an hour after a storm ends to go back outside.
Lightning strikes when a negative charge on the bottom of a cloud is attracted to the positive charge of tall objects on the ground. A conduit opens between the positive and negative charges, and lightning is the result. If you’re ever standing outside and notice that your hair is standing on end, this is a sign that the lightning is gathering a charge above you. If this happens, go inside immediately.
What to Avoid
Lightning follows certain patterns that are easily predictable. You can protect yourself by becoming familiar with these patterns and avoiding surfaces that conduct lightning.
Lightning can travel through plumbing, so stay away from sinks, faucets, bathtubs and showers while a lightning storm is taking place.
Bodies of Water
Never go swimming during a lightning storm. Water is not a very good conductor of electricity, so when lightning strikes water, the charge scatters across its surface. Stay away from your in-ground pool during the next thunderstorm.
Landlines and phone lines are one of the leading causes of lightning strikes indoors. If you have a landline, stay off your phone during a thunderstorm.
Windows and Doors
Another way that lightning enters the home is through open windows and doors. Keep all windows and doors closed during electrical storms.
Concrete often contains metal rebar or wire mesh, which makes it an excellent conductor of electricity. Concrete can be found many places indoors, including the slab on which your home is built (if you own a slab home) and your concrete foundation.
Lightning travels through wires. In the event that lightning strikes your electrical system, anything you own that is connected to your electrical system could be damaged or destroyed by the lightning strike. If you are touching or using that piece of electronic equipment when the lightning strike occurs, you too could be electrocuted.
It’s important to be enclosed by four walls and a ceiling. If you’re on your porch during a lightning strike, you could be vulnerable.
Unless you’ve installed a surge protector in your home, your appliances could be destroyed if the house is struck by lightning. When it comes to lightning strikes, not all appliances are created equal. Appliances with a circuit board are more sensitive to the problems that might occur because of a lightning strike. When unplugging electronic devices in your home, the items that should take priority include:
- Stereo equipment
- Smart phone
- Video game consoles
Other items in the home can also be unplugged during a thunderstorm, but it is the most sensitive and expensive that should take priority.
What to Do if Someone is Struck by Lightning
In the event that someone is struck by lightning, call 9-1-1 first. You may touch them as soon as the lightning strike is gone. Lightning does not leave residual electricity in the body, so you need not worry about electrocuting yourself.
Some people who are struck by lightning will lose consciousness, or their heart may stop beating. When you call emergency responders, they can help you resuscitate the person who has been hit by lightning.
In some cases, you may need to start CPR. CPR techniques can change over time as the Amercian Red Cross determines best ways to help victims in need, so the best way to learn CPR is to take a class. If you’ve never taken a CPR class and need to resuscitate someone who is down, talk to the first responder on the phone. Your first responder will be able to tell you what to do while waiting for emergency vehicles.
If the victim of the lightning strike is suffering from shock, you’ll need to put their torso and legs above their head. Keep them comfortable until help arrives. Symptoms of shock include:
- Cool skin
- Ashen, pale color
- Rapid pulse
- Rapid breathing
- Nausea or vomiting
- Enlarged pupils
An Automated External Defibrillator (AED) is a device that’s designed to jump start the heart in the event that it arrests. AEDs deliver a small charge to the body, under the right circumstances. Although AEDs are not usually found in the home, they are often available in public places. Look for them on the walls of public buildings, often near fire extinguishers, first aid kits or other emergency devices.
AEDs are designed to be used by untrained people (although it is ideal to have some experience/knowledge of how they function). Many modern models will speak instructions to the person using them. The AED begins by detecting whether a charge is needed. A properly functioning AED will not deliver a charge if a person’s heart is beating as it should.
What to Do if Your Home is Struck by Lightning
If your home is struck by lightning, you’ll likely hear a loud, terrible boom that will shake your entire house. This is often the first and only sign that a lightning strike has occurred. Sometimes when this happens, the house will catch on fire. If a fire begins, you might be able to tell right away, or the fire may build up some time before it becomes obvious. Watch for these signs:
- Smell of something burning
- Smoke detectors going off
- Unexplained smoke
Even if you don’t see evidence of a fire at first, stay vigilant. Test your smoke detectors, especially the smoke detectors in your attic, as this is the most likely place for a fire to break out.
If you do see evidence of a fire, evacuate the home and call the authorities. If the storm has not yet ended, go to a neighbor’s house, or sit in your car while you’re waiting for the emergency responders and while you’re waiting for it to pass.
After the Storm
Just because a storm appears to be over doesn’t mean all danger has passed. Lightning can strike even after the storm has ended. Staying inside with the doors and windows closed can help you stay safe. Start counting after lightning strikes. If you’re able to get to thirty before thunder has passed, then it’s probably safe to go outside. Continue to watch for warning signs of a problem.
Fallen Power Lines and Trees
Once you’ve had some time to go outside, be on the lookout for fallen trees and power lines. Fallen power lines can be very dangerous as well as problematic for local power service. If you happen to see fallen power lines, contact 9-1-1 as soon as possible. Do not touch or go near down lines, and keep everyone in your household from going near them as well.
Fallen trees can be similarly dangerous. They can pose a traffic hazard or worse, depending on their location. Contact authorities to have downed trees cut up and hauled away as soon as possible.
Safely Cleaning Up After Lightning Strikes
After an electrical storm has passed, there may be a lot of debris in the yard, or even structural damage to the house. Survey your property carefully. Do not allow your children to explore the property, as they could encounter a downed power line or other debris that could lead them to trouble.
- Burned or charred parts of the house
- Cracks in the windows
- Structural damage (including cracks in the foundation)
If your home is actively on fire, contact 9-1-1 as soon as possible. If your home was struck by lightning and you’re not sure if your home is on fire, contact the emergency responders to be on the safe side.
Do not allow children to clean up your yard with you. Stay away from all flood water, as flood water is often contaminated with hazardous pollution.
Once the fire (if one exists) is put out, you’ll need to work with your insurance company to file a claim. Every insurance company has a different claims process, so contact your insurance company as soon as possible to get started.
Visually Inspect Home for Any Damage
Walking around on the outside of your home, it’s hard to tell what might be going on inside the walls. Inspecting your home on the inside can help you determine whether your home has sustained real damage. Poke your head up into the attic, and inspect the basement and other parts of your home where you don’t often spend time.
If your home has sustained damage, have it fixed right away. This is especially important if the damage to your home was done to the roof. Roof leaks can lead to wood rot, mold and even pest infestation. Work with a contractor as soon as you’re able to have the roof repaired.
Taking Lightning Seriously
Lightning can be incredibly dangerous. People who are struck by lightning sometimes experience permanent hearing loss, brain damage, or even death. You can protect yourself from lightning by taking the right precautions when the time comes.
- Stay indoors or seek shelter in an electrical storm.
- Stay away from windows and doors during electrical storms.
- Count the seconds between lightning and thunder, so you’ll know how close an electrical storm is to your home.
- If someone is struck by lightning, remain calm and contact emergency responders.
Taking the right action during an electrical storm can save someone’s life. Training your family members to stay safe and react quickly in the event of a lightning strike may even save your life.
Want to know more about lightning and lightning safety? These resources can help:
- Centers for Disease Control and Protection: When Lightning Roars, Go Indoors!
- Canada’s Alert Ready: Emergency Alert System
- U.S.’s National Weather Service: Warning Systems Information
- Business Insider: The Most Terrifying Part About Getting Struck By Lightning is What Happens To You Afterwards
- How Stuff Works: 10 Must-Haves in a Storm Survival Kit
- Budget Dumpster: How to Prepare for a Severe Storm
- How Stuff Works: Lightning Rods
- Insurance Information Institute: Lightning Safety – 10 Myths and Facts
- Shed Heads: Whole House Surge Protectors
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