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Leery of lightning

June 19, 2014 - Betsy Bethel
That sure was a thunder boomer last night! I was driving home from Pittsburgh at about 10 p.m. when I hit the rain in Washington County. I had been watching the light show ever since leaving the South Hills, and it became apparent as I turned west onto Interstate 70 that I was heading right into the thick of it.

My friends know how I feel driving in such conditions. They've heard me say many times: "The only thing worse than driving at night is driving at night in the rain." It's just so darn difficult to see, even in a normal rainfall, let alone in a downpour complete with wind and lightning. And 70 at that time of night is zooming with semis. (I was going to say "crawling with semis," but I decided "zooming" is much more appropriate.) They dump more water on your car as they barrel past, obscuring your view for several seconds at a time.

Last night, it wasn't the wind or the rain or the semis that finally prompted me to pull over and wait out the storm. It was the lightning. I lived for eight years in the "lightning capital of the world," the Tampa Bay area, and I don't think I've ever seen that much lightning in one storm. From the accounts of my friends and family here in the valley, it didn't hit here (Wheeling/Martins Ferry) nearly as bad as it did in western Washington County, around Claysville and West Alex.

The lightning was so intense — both the frequency and the amount of it — that I began to feel truly scared. My shoulders and neck tensed up as I sat forward and white-knuckled the steering wheel. What if a tree is struck and falls on the highway? What if it hits a cell or electric tower? What was worse, it was stifling hot, I have no a/c, and my windows began fogging up.

I was told a long time ago during a particularly bad summer storm in St. Clairsville as a kid that the safest place to be if you're caught outside during a thunderstorm is in a car. But not in this case!

I was thankful when the blue West Virginia welcome center sign loomed ahead. I pulled in, parked, turned off the car and listened to the storm rage on, feeling much safer and that I made the right decision. I actually began to enjoy the "show." And I quelled the last of my nervousness by crunching the heck out of several handfuls of stale tortilla chips from my lunch bag. After 20 minutes or so, the rain slowed to a pitter-patter, and the storm had mostly shifted south.

I used to be much more fearless about such things as thunderstorms. After becoming a parent, I have become much more careful about many things, actually. I no longer take chances driving in snow. I don't try to catch the biggest waves at the beach. I shun roller coasters and cringe when my daughter rides anything more intense than paddle boats, praying ceaselessly until I can hug her to me again. I try not to let on how scared I am because I don't want to ruin her fun. I have no idea how I would handle having a true daredevil of a child. Valium? And lots and lots of prayer, for sure.

When it comes to thunder and lightning, Emma doesn't freak out too much because I've told her there's nothing to fear. But that's not entirely true, and she knows it. She knows her grandfather, my dad, was struck by lightning when I was a baby, and it stopped his heart and lungs for several minutes before a nearby nurse who happened to be driving past Speidel golf course at Oglebay revived him. Dad was extremely fortunate. A deep pain in his shoulder once in awhile and hearing loss in one ear are the extent of the long-term damage.

Dad was heading off the golf course when he was struck. He was trying like heck to get to a safe place, although at the time there was only a small "caddyshack" at that golf course. Still not the safest of places. According to the National Weather Service, there is NO safe place outdoors during a thunderstorm. Get inside a car or house immediately upon hearing thunder and don't go back out until 30 minutes after the last rumble.

That may sound overly cautious, but think of the consequences. A girl who went to my high school in Dunedin, Fla., went out to get the mail when it had only been thundering -- the sun was still shining -- and was struck down. Both her body and brain were severely injured. She never recovered.

This year alone, as of June 11, three people in Florida, one in Texas and one in New Mexico died from lightning strikes. All were outside and one was near a body of water. Lightning strikes are among the top three storm-related fatalities, the NWS states, even though the number of lightning deaths has been decreasing over the years.

The most important thing to do is get inside. "When the thunder roars, go indoors" is the catchphrase the NWS is promoting.

"Most lightning strikes occur during the summer when people are participating in outdoor recreational activities," according to information from the NWC and the Ohio Committee for Weather Awareness. "At the first clap of thunder, stop outdoor activities and try to find indoor shelter immediately. If swimming, boating or fishing, get away from the water as quickly as possible. Find shelter in a substantial building (such as a home, school, office building or shopping center) or a hard-topped vehicle.

"Picnic shelters, car ports, baseball dugouts and convertible vehicles are not safe shelters during thunder and lightning storms."

And yes, it's true, "do not use electrical equipment and stay away from water/plumbing sources" during such storms.

Storms can be fascinating and can serve as great catalysts for family bonding, not to mention being a source of free entertainment. Just be sure you're taking in the show from a window seat.

For more on lightning safety, visit www.weathersafety.ohio.gov or www.lightningsafety.noaa.gov.

 
 

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