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When lightning strikes. July 24, 2010

Posted by ourfriendben in Ben Franklin, homesteading, wit and wisdom.
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Our friend Ben and Silence Dogood have a thing about lightning, and it’s not a good thing. When your small clapboard cottage home sits in a hollow with huge trees looming over it, as ours does, you don’t want lightning striking anywhere near you. But we’re also attuned to lightning (if you’ll pardon the pun) because of the large role it played in the life of our hero and blog mentor, the great Benjamin Franklin.

When most people think of Ben Franklin and lightning, they think of Franklin, his kite and key held aloft as lightning crashes around him and he discovers how to channel electricity. But in his own day, Dr. Franklin was far more renowned for inventing the lightning rod.

Before the lightning rod, if a house was struck by lightning, it was viewed as divine punishment upon the luckless inhabitants and left to burn to the ground. This was unfortunate—to say the least—for the families involved, and often for entire cities or city blocks as well, since houses tended to be old, wood, and terribly close together. People did make haphazard efforts to throw water on neighoring houses, but that often wasn’t enough if sparks flew from the burning house onto the wood-shingled or thatched roofs of their neighbors.

But the clear-eyed Ben Franklin put an end to all that. Not only did his lightning rod show that lightning was simply another natural phenomenon rather than the wrath of God, assuring both safety and continued standing in the community for families whose homes were hit by lightning. Ben went further, establishing the first volunteer fire departments as backup. Thanks to him, rather than the previous chaotic, often ineffectual efforts to deal with fires, if lightning did start a fire, a group of trained and organized men would quickly rush to the rescue. Just another reason old Ben Franklin was so highly regarded!

Returning to the present, our friend Ben’s attention was caught yesterday afternoon by a feature article on Yahoo! called “Nine myths and facts about lightning” by Lori Bongiorno (read it at http://green.yahoo.com/blog/the_conscious_consumer/143/nine-myths-and-facts-about-lightning.html). Still more interesting were the links in the story to NOAA—that’s the National Weather Service–articles about indoor and outdoor safety when lightning strikes.

Our friend Ben will summarize what they said here in case you’re disinclined to click on the links. You still need to know the basics of lightning safety, especially in high summer when thunderstorms are most common. So please, listen up!

Here are 10 (plus one) easy ways to keep from getting fried:

1. Disconnect. This is commonsense safety for your appliances, not you. Apparently, surge suppressors aren’t enough to protect electronics during a thunderstorm. So when you see or hear a storm approaching, turn off and disconnect your computers, TVs, appliances, etc. Do this before the storm hits, since otherwise you could be shocked or worse if you try to do it while lightning is crashing around you. 

2. Get off. If lightning hits your house, it’s usually channeled through electric wiring or plumbing into the ground. This is not the time to be on your computer or land-line phone (cells are okay), or opening the fridge or using the stove, dishwasher, washing machine, or other electrical appliance. This is also definitely not the time to be taking a bath or shower, washing your hands or dishes in the sink, or enjoying the pool or hot tub. Nothing our friend Ben has read mentions toilets, but be advised.

3. Keep away from metal and concrete. We all know that iron and steel conduct lightning—hence the lightning rod—but our friend Ben had no idea that concrete was also hazardous because of its iron reinforcing rods. (Duh!) NOAA warns us to keep away from concrete floors and walls during thunderstorms. I guess heading to the basement is a bad idea!

4. Get into a safe place. NOAA warns over and over that there is no way to be safe from lightning outdoors. Your best bets are to get indoors, into a vehicle, or (if you’re out in the water and can’t get back to shore) into a boat. But not just any of these will do, as we’re about to see.

5. Go (or stay) indoors. But again, not any shelter will do. You need to go someplace with a roof, walls, and a floor, and preferably with wiring and plumbing (both of which can conduct lightning into the ground and away from you). Homes, office buildings, shopping malls, even public restrooms such as you often find at parks qualify; tents, dugouts, picnic shelters, garages, carports and the like do not.

6. Get (or stay) in your car. Today’s cars, SUVs, RVs, and trucks are aluminum, not steel, and are very safe places to be during a lightning storm. If the vehicle has a metal roof and all the windows are rolled up. And if you refrain from getting on your CB radio (or any radio or cell phone attached to a charger, for that matter) during the storm. Convertibles, golf carts, ATVs, tractors, bikes, and motorcycles don’t count, unfortunately. NOAA said again and again that if you were camping, picnicking, hiking, playing baseball or any team sport, golfing, fishing, etc.etc., and saw a storm coming up, your best bet was to run for the car.

7. Get in your boat’s cabin. A boat with no cabin, like a canoe, kayak, or small sailboat, is apparently a very bad bet when a thunderstorm blows up. But if a storm blows up before you can return to land and get in your car or indoors, and your boat does have a cabin, get in there and stay there, keeping away from metal, wiring, and radios.

8. Don’t worry about airplanes. According to the Yahoo! article, all airplanes are struck by lightning at least once a year, but they’re protected against lightning strikes. Lightning won’t take your airplane down, at least, not if you’re flying commercial instead of on your own.

9. Get down, but don’t lie down. If you’re outdoors and a storm takes you by surprise, so you can’t make it to the car or indoors before lightning starts crashing around you, you’re at high risk. You want to find a low area, but not be the highest thing on, say, a flat expanse of golf course. Head down from a mountain hike and away from tall, isolated trees; aim for dips or valleys and shorter stands of trees. Do not lie down on the ground; lightning can snake across the ground for miles from where it strikes. Spooky!

10. Stay where you are. NOAA says to stay in your car, home, office, or wherever for 30 minutes after hearing the last thunderclap before venturing out, since lightning may still be lurking long after it seems the storm has ended.

And the bonus:

11. Stay informed. NOAA recommends that you carry a NOAA weather radio with you and check in frequently if you’re planning to attend a picnic or game or go hiking, to the beach, fishing, and so on. We have a pocket-sized NOAA weather radio we bought at Radio Shack for less than $20, and it’s been a lifesaver for us on many occasions, since we can get up-to-the-minute weather updates before hitting the road for any reason. But going online to weather.com or Weather Underground can also be helpful, especially since it’s so easy to check the weather at your destination as well as at home. (Often, it’s the weather where you’re going that matters, after all.) 

Thanks, Yahoo!, NOAA, and Dr. Franklin! We don’t want to be turned into human lightning rods.



1. Barbee' - July 24, 2010

Hi Ben, timely post. Our house was struck a few days ago. Caused a few problems with electronics, but we were not hurt although the indoor flash was only a few feet from us. Thank you for the information.

Yikes, Barbee’, sorry I couldn’t have posted it before your house was hit! (Not that anyone can predict a strike like that, anyway, but still…) I’m so sorry that happened!!! Thank God you all weren’t hurt.

2. light-street.com - July 28, 2010

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