As Lightning Strikes Spike, Myth-Busting Often Means Safety Deaths from lightning strikes are up sharply this year, according to the National Weather Service. Here are some myths about lightning, or avoiding it, and tips on how to actually stay safe.

As Lightning Strikes Spike, Myth-Busting Often Means Safety

As Lightning Strikes Spike, Myth-Busting Often Means Safety

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Deaths from lightning strikes are up sharply this year, according to the National Weather Service. Here are some myths about lightning, or avoiding it, and tips on how to actually stay safe.

This story initially aired on July 17, 2015 on Morning Edition.


So far this year, lightning has killed more than 20 people in the U.S. While that's well above the recent average, the chances of being killed or injured by lightning are still extremely remote. Survivors of lightning injury face unique and unusual medical problems. So in spite of their small numbers, they're banding together for support. NPR's Jeff Brady has the story which first aired on "Morning Edition."

JEFF BRADY, BYLINE: 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 lightning strikes cause burns, but brain injuries are more common.

MARY ANN COOPER: And it can also cause nerve injuries so that the injured nerves, as they're 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 on 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 while 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.

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