'When Thunder Roars, Go Indoors' To Best Avoid Lightning's Pain

'When Thunder Roars, Go Indoors' To Best Avoid Lightning's Pain

10:19am Jul 20, 2015
You don't have to be outdoors to be hurt or injured by a nearby lightning strike, like this one in New Mexico. The pain for survivors can be lifelong.
You don't have to be outdoors to be hurt or injured by a nearby lightning strike, like this one in New Mexico. The pain for survivors can be lifelong.
Marko Korosec / Barcroft Media/Landov

Lightning strikes have killed at least 20 people in the U.S. so far this year, according to the National Weather Service. That's higher than the average for recent years, the service says.

Most people who are injured or killed by lightning, it turns out, are not struck directly — instead, the bolt lands nearby.

That's what happened to Steve Marshburn in 1969. He was working inside a bank and says lightning somehow made its way through an ungrounded speaker at the drive-through window to the stool where he was sitting.

"I still have the migraines," Marshburn says. "The lightning — when it hit my back, it went up my spine, went to the left side of my brain and scorched it, came down, went out my right hand that was holding a metal teller stamp."

That hand still shakes a lot, he says.

Marshburn has since had 46 surgeries, and he says his back still isn't right. He started a group called Lightning Strike and Electric Shock Survivors International. The pain for those who survive a lightning injury can be so severe, he says, that some consider suicide.

"Just a couple of weeks ago we talked our 27th individual out of taking their life," he says.

In those phone calls, Marshburn tells lightning strike survivors that there's help available from the 1,800 or so members of his group.

Dr. Mary Ann Cooper, an emergency physician who directs the lightning injury research program at University of Illinois, Chicago, says that while most people assume lightning strikes cause burns, brain injuries are more common.

Lightning strikes can damage nerves in a way that causes nerves to misfire, sometimes for the rest of the survivor's life, she says, and the brain reads that misfiring as chronic pain.

Even with the near doubling of lightning strike fatalities this year so far, the total is way down compared with the 1940s. Back then, according to the National Weather Service, a division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 300 to 400 people died each year. John Jensenius, a meteorologist and lightning safety specialist with the agency, says there are a few reasons for that.

"Most homes had corded phones," he explains. "So a corded phone, when people held it right up to their head, was a direct connection with wires outside."

And he says there were a lot more farmers sitting on uncovered tractors decades back.

Today about two-thirds of fatalities happen while people are having fun instead of at work. Jensenius says people who were fishing account for more than 10 percent of the lightning deaths in the last decade.

"We have a very simple saying: 'When thunder roars, go indoors.' Which means," he says, "if you hear thunder you need to be inside right away."

One problem with following that advice is that many lightning injuries happen at beaches, where the loud surf can make it difficult to hear thunder. So Jensenius advises making sure you know the weather forecast before you go.

If you want to know how far lightning is from you, he says, count the seconds between the flash of lightning and clap of thunder, then divide that number by 5. That's how many miles away the strike is.

"In the case of a thunderstorm, lightning can strike up to 10 miles away," Jensenius says. "That would be 50 seconds and really, that's about the distance you can hear thunder. So, even a distant rumble should tell you you're close enough to be struck by lightning."

And when you go inside for cover, he says, know that if lightning strikes your house it can travel along electric lines or plumbing. So don't hold on to plugged-in appliances or their cords, or take a shower until the storm is over.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

You've probably heard someone say it's more likely you'll be struck by lightning than X - like, say, winning the lottery - point being, death by lightning is rare. The other thing even more rare. It's true, but lightning strikes have killed 20 people in the United States so far this year. The National Weather Service says that is higher than the recent average, and they're warning people to take thunderstorms more seriously. Here's NPR's Jeff Brady.

JEFF BRADY, BYLINE: It turns out most people injured or killed by lightning are not struck directly. Instead, the bolt lands nearby. That's what happened to Steve Marshburn in 1969. He was working inside a bank and says somehow lightning made its way through an ungrounded speaker at the drive-through to the stool where he was sitting.

STEVE MARSHBURN: I still have the migraines. The lightning - when it hit my back, it went up my spine, went to the left side of my brain and scorched it, came down, went out my right hand that I was holding a metal teller stamp. That hand shakes a lot.

BRADY: Marshburn says he's had 46 surgeries, and his back still isn't right. He started a group called Lightning Strike and Electric Shock Survivors International. He says the pain for those who survive a lightning injury can be so severe that some consider suicide.

MARSHBURN: Just a couple of weeks ago we talked our 27th individual out of taking their life.

BRADY: Marshburn says in those phone calls, he tells lightning strike survivors that there's help available from the 1,800 others who are members of his group. Dr. Mary Ann Cooper is professor emeritus at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She says most people assume lighting strikes cause burns, but brain injuries are more common.

MARY ANN COOPER: And it can also cause nerve injuries so that the injured nerve has been misfiring for the rest of this person's life perhaps - misfires in the brain and the brain says pain, pain, pain, pain - so chronic pain can also be a result of lightning injury.

BRADY: Even with the near doubling of lightning strike fatalities this year so far, numbers are way down compared to the 1940s. Back then, the National Weather Service says 300 to 400 people died each year. John Jensenius is a lightning safety specialist with the agency, and he says there are a few reasons for that.

JOHN JENSENIUS: Most homes had corded phones. So a corded phone, when people held it right up to their head, was a direct connection with wires outside.

BRADY: And, he says, there were a lot more farmers sitting on uncovered tractors decades back. Today, about two-thirds of fatalities happen when people are having fun instead of at work. Jensenius says people fishing account for more than 10 percent of the lightning deaths in the last decade.

JENSENIUS: We have a very simple saying - when thunder roars, go indoors, which means if you hear thunder, you need to be inside right away.

BRADY: One problem with that is a lot of lightning injuries happen at beaches where the loud surf can make it difficult to hear thunder. So Jensenius says make sure you know the weather forecast before you go. He says if you want to know how far lightning is from you, count the seconds in between the lightning and the thunder, then divide that by five. That's how many miles away the strike is.

JENSENIUS: In the case of a thunderstorm, lightning can strike up to 10 miles away. That would be 50 seconds. And really, that's about the distance that you can hear thunder. So even a distant rumble should tell you you're close enough to be struck by lightning.

BRADY: And Jensenius says when you go inside for cover, know that if lightning strikes your house, it can travel along electric lines or plumbing. So, he says, don't hold on to corded appliances or take a shower until the storm is over. Jeff Brady, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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