Lightning a dangerously understood phenomena

Published 12:00 am Friday, July 11, 2003

Suffolk News-Herald

A Wednesday night lightning strike in Virginia Beach could have been a disaster when a 30,000 gallon liquid propane tank was struck. In that instance, the propane was ignited by the lightning and flames burned skyward as the fuel escaped through the tank’s damaged relief valve.

It took 36-hours to burn off the fuel as safety officials from &uot;Amerigas,&uot; the Portsmouth/Suffolk District, were at the scene to pump out and burn off the fuel. Fire officials in Virginia Beach said they had almost every one of their 21 emergency vehicles out that night because of similar lightning strikes.

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According to Suffolk’s Emergency Management Coordinator, Capt. Jim Judkins, those were just a few of many lightning strikes that can take place during the peak season for the dangerously misunderstood weather phenomena.

Judkins said, whether you’re on the ball field, the golf course or in the pool, a darkened sky and rumbling thunder are clear signals to suspend play and get to shelter immediately.

&uot;That action could save your life,&uot; said Judkins. &uot;Lightning killed 51 people and injured 256 in the United States last year. Four of those injuries occurred in Virginia.&uot;

Judkins said dangers of lightning must be made clear to the public.

&uot;We publicize it more during the lightning season&uot; said Judkins. &uot;The theme for the campaign is &uot;Lightning/One strike and you’re out,’&uot; said Judkins. &uot;The last big lightning strike in Suffolk was the one that cause the destruction of Liberty Springs Church. We have been fortunate.&uot;

Judkins added that lightning casualties occur year-round, but summertime is the most dangerous. On average, 25 million cloud-to-ground lightning strikes occur in the U.S. each year. From 1971 to 2000, approximately 73 people were killed by lightning strikes each year. Compare that to 68 tornado fatalities and 16 deaths due to hurricanes.

&uot;All thunderstorms carry the potential to produce lightning, so it is up to each of us to heed the warnings,&uot; said Judkins. &uot;The fact is that lightning can strike up to 10 miles away from a thunderstorm. If you hear thunder, it is definitely time to take a break for safety’s sake.&uot;

The captain added that if you can hear the sound of thunder, you are within range of a lightning strike. Lightning can travel horizontally up to 10 miles in any direction, which means that a thunderstorm need not be directly overhead, nor does it need to be raining, to produce deadly lightning in an area.

&uot;Lightning tends to strike the tallest object, so athletic fields can be dangerous places during thunderstorms,&uot; said Judkins. &uot;If lightning hits metal bleachers, fences, light poles, field or soccer goal posts, the charge travels through the metal and shocks anyone in its path. Lightning can also &uot;splash&uot; or &uot;ricochet&uot; off these objects and strike nearby people.&uot;

Suffolk Emergency Management Coordinator Capt. Jim Judkins said everyone should play it safe this summer and don’t become a disaster statistic. He also offered the following suggestions to avoid becoming a statistic.

N Immediately move inside a sturdy building or an automobile for greater protection. Avoid picnic or rain shelters.

N Once inside a building, close all windows and outside doors. Stay off the telephone and away from electrical outlets and metal pipes.

N If you cannot get to a building, seek shelter in a vehicle with a metal roof. Close all windows and doors and avoid touching any inside metal.

N For more information on avoiding lightning strikes, call the Suffolk Fire Department at 923-2110.