LA CROSSE, Wisconsin (WXOW) - It's lightning safety awareness week and with over 25 million cloud-to-ground lightning strikes per year in the United States, lightning related dangers are very real. But they're also commonly ignored.
"There's always going to be that first strike out there," said Todd Shea, Warning Coordination Meteorologist at the La Crosse National Weather Service. "You just don't want to be anywhere near it."
According to the National Weather Service, lightning accounts for an average of 50+ deaths per year and hundreds of injuries.
"Lightning is one of the underrated killers out there in addition to flash flooding at some of the other threats we see with thunderstorms," said Shea. "But the reason we spend this week on lightning safety is because people often times don't think about it or don't respect that it could happen to them."
Because of the nature of lightning, many of those who are injured suffer long-term complications.
"If you think about a lightning strike, and all of the electrical charges that are associated with brain activity, that [lightning] can injure that [a brain] for an awful long time," said Shea. "People can have lasting affects that can go on for years with things like depression and headaches after being struck by lightning."
From 2006-2012 around two-third of the lightning related deaths and injuries occurred to people who were engaging in outdoor, leisure activities. Many victims were headed to safety but waited too long to take cover.
"It's simple things," said Shea. "It's working in your yard when there's thunder or lighting in the area. It's being in a park or big outdoor setting. Fishing is pretty common, people hiking in higher up areas and ridge tops, beaches when thunderstorms are rolling in. Those are all common occurrences."
Lightning can strike up to 10 miles outside of the parent thunderstorm and no matter what it looks like outside, if you hear thunder, it's time to go indoors. Because of this, the National Weather Service has adopted the saying "when thunder roars go indoors."
"Our average number of fatalities each year is still too high," said Shea. "Any fatality is too high. But we average 53 deaths a year from lighting still. So while that number is coming down a little but we just kind of want to make sure the word is getting out there. That people need to move indoors anytime there is thunder in the area and lightning strikes nearby. So you're not a statistic."
Before heading out for the day, know the forecast and have a plan if a thunderstorm rolls in. At the first rumble of thunder, head indoors. Thirty minutes after the last clap of thunder you can safely return your activities.
"I guess where I cringe is still seeing outdoor events taking place, even in the La Crosse area here, where there is thunder already occurring or lighting strikes can be seen off in the distance and they keep trying to keep the event going," said Shea. "They're basically taking chances with all that lighting in the area."
If you get caught outdoors without shelter nearby, a hard-topped car can provide some safety from lightning. If you cannot get to a car, avoid trees and other tall objects and try to get as low as possible.
"If you have no other option, cower down," said Shea. "Stay on your feet but bend down like a ball and try to make yourself as low of a target as possible."
Shea said lightning injuries inside a building are rare but do occur. This is because lighting can travel through anything that conducts electricity. You can minimize your risk by staying off of wired devices and out of the shower during a thunderstorm. Cell phones are safe to use.
For more information about lightning, the National Weather Service is a goldmine for educational material and resources. Links to the resources used for this story can be found below.
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