Tornadoes and hurricanes are not our biggest weather threat here in Florida. The biggest danger we face is lightning.
"Lightning kills more people and injures more people than any other hazard here in Florida," warned Meteorologist Pete Wolf with the National Weather Service in Jacksonville.
So far this year, there have been five people struck and killed by lightning in Florida. That's compared to a total of four deaths in Florida in all of 2013. The most recent deadly strike happened just last week, when three people were walking along Ft. Myers Beach. In that strike, two people were critically hurt and a third person was killed.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration tracks deadly lightning strikes and found between 2006 and 2012, 64 percent of lightning fatalities happened while people were enjoying leisure activities outdoors.
The top five activities are:
|1. Fishing||2. Camping||3. Boating||4. Soccer||5. Beach|
While every lightning story is a dangerous one, they are certainly not all deadly. Beth Lambert works at the Limelight Theatre in downtown St. Augustine and when the weather's bad, it can be a real mess.
"It was raining really hard and I decided I would go outside and document the fact that the road floods," Lambert told News4JAX. "So I'm standing here like an idiot with my cell phone videotaping a lighting storm."
That's when she got much more than flooding on camera: A huge lightning strike that hit near where she was standing outside her office door.
But this isn't Lambert's only lightning story. Just weeks before her home was struck by lightning. But it was her husband that heard that strike.
"He thought it was just a regular kind of rolling thunder summer storm and all of a sudden he just heard this terrible, you know, boom," she explained.
She has the pictures to prove the damage. The lightning took out her TVs, phone, internet and her water heater, too.
Matt Miller lives further north, but he has a similar lighting tale to tell. Miller lives on Jacksonville's Westside and says mother nature often gives him a beautiful show.
He loves to keep his cell phone camera rolling from his living room window, which opens up to a clear view of the sky.
" I just put my phone up and you can just watch the whole show go on it's almost like a lightning show of the south," Miller explained.
Miller showed News4JAX clip after clip of lightning strikes he says are very common on his side of town. In fact, Miller's home has been hit by lightning 3 times in the past 5 years.
"It's something good to watch, it's not fun to be in," he added.
He says two separate lightning strikes just this month took out his air conditioner.
"First time it took out the overflow pump, and the second time it took out a fuse," he said.
That most recent strike was about two weeks ago and it left him with no air conditioning for over a week.
"That was not fun, not fun at all, not when it costs about $300 to fix that," Miller said. "And it would have been a thousand dollars if it wasn't under warranty."
Does Miller's story or Lambert's story sound similar to one of your lightning stories? So many of us have had similar encounters with lightning while living in Florida. So why is the Sunshine State also the Lightning State?
"It has to do with the tropical climate we have here. We're further south and closer to the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic. A lot more moisture, a lot warmer air and those are both key ingredients for thunder storm," explained NWS Jacksonville Meteorologist Pete Wolf.
Wolf adds, it doesn't matter if you live to the North, South, East or West, if you live here, you'll see severe weather, just like Miller and Lambert. But are there certain neighborhoods that get more often than others?
"It varies from one day to the next, it depends on the mechanisms that develop thunderstorms," Wolf said. "For us it's the sea breezes. On the days that the sea breezes are pinned to the coast it's the beaches that tend to have it much more prevalent. And on days when the sea breeze can move much further inland, then it might be a day it's West of I-95. That may have more lightning or thunder that day."
There are two basic kinds of lightning: cloud-to-cloud and cloud-to-ground. Lightning looks for the path of least resistance. Most of the time, that path is cloud-to-cloud, but other times, that path of least resistance takes that lightning bolt to the ground.
We are more likely to see the more frequent, intense lightning strikes on either side of Interstate 95 because that is where the sea breeze and the hot, inland temperatures meet. This time last year, the real hot spot for lightning was just north of downtown Jacksonville.
So, is this year any different from the last couple of years?
"It doesn't seem terribly different," said Wolf. "Every time you're under a really bad storm it seems like it's the worst storm you've ever seen, but in general, storms have been pretty similar year to year. "They may strike different areas so it may seem like one year it's always the beaches that get the storm, another year it might be along the St. Johns River that always seems to get the storms, it seems to vary from year to year as far as location."
Wolf says there are rules we can follow to help protect ourselves and our families when we are outdoors. For example, the lightning to thunder rule.
"Five seconds for every mile away that it is. So, if you're counting to five and then you hear the thunder, then you know it's about a mile away," he explained.
Wolf says the clouds can tell you a lot, too.
"There's an interesting relationship between how tall thunderstorms are and the amount of lightning they produce. Which actually proposes an interesting amateur weatherman rule of thumb: that if you start hearing thunder increase in frequency, the storm is intensifying over you and if the storm is over you and the thunder starts to decrease or diminish, the storm is weakening," he said. "And you can tell that without even looking at radar."
Wolf says he also looks at the darkness of a cloud base.
"Because light from the sun goes through the clouds and light clouds allow the light to go through it and dark clouds block more of the light, so really dark tall thunderstorms are black. They're very threatening looking. If the sky looks threatening it's probably telling you something," he added.
Because of how dangerous lightning can be, Wolf says following the "Thunder Roars Rule" is a safe way to go.
"When you hear thunder, when thunder roars, go indoors somewhere," he warned.
However, Wolf adds there is one thing the "Thunder Roars Rule" can't do for you.
"It doesn't protect you from the very first strike," he said. "That's the deadliest strike from a thunderstorm, the very first one because people don't know it's coming."
When you are out and about with the family, the one tool that can help keep you safe is radar on your smartphone. It's something you can get for free when you download The Weather Authority App.
"And what I use as a member of the public, not just as a meteorologist, when I'm home, walking the dog and I want to know if I'm safe or not, I use radar," said Wolf. "If it's red, it's something that could potentially produce lightning and it's better to be in a safe spot."
The safest place for you to go if you are outdoors and there's lightning is indoors or into a vehicle. The nonprofit organization Federal Alliance for Safe Homes, or FLASH, offers the following advice to help you protect your family from lightning:
Protect Your Family
1. Stay alert and listen carefully for the first signs of lightning or thunder. Remember, “If Thunder Roars, Go Indoors™.”
2. Seek shelter. Lightning often hits before the rain begins, so don’t wait for the rain to start before leaving.
3. Avoid water, high ground and open spaces.
4. Stay away from metal objects including wires, fences and motors.
5. Find shelter in a sizable building or in a fully enclosed metal vehicle. Completely close the windows and don’t lean on the doors.
6. Don’t get under a small canopy, small picnic shelter or near trees.
7. If you cannot take shelter indoors, crouch down with your feet together and place your hands over your ears to minimize hearing damage from the thunder.
8. Stay at least 15 feet away from other people.
9. Avoid water and stay away from doors and windows.
10. Do not use land line telephone or headsets. Cell phones are safe.
11. Turn off, unplug and stay away from appliances, computers, power tools and televisions sets as lightning may strike exterior electric and phone lines inducing shocks to equipment inside.
After the Storm
12. Don’t resume activities until at least 30 minutes after the last lightning strike or thunderclap.
13. Call 911 immediately if anyone is injured and use first aid procedures. Lightning victims do not carry an electrical charge, so it is safe to administer medical treatment.
Protect Your Home:
Surge Protective Devices
14. These systems protect electronic and electrical appliances from all but the most severe electrical surges or direct strikes.
15. They should be installed at all items to be protected. A good electrical grounding system is essential.
Whole House Surge Protection
16. A whole house surge protection system can be installed on the electric meter or the electrical panel to help protect the appliances and electronic equipment in your house such as computers, TVs and DVD players.
17. Contact your local electric company for installation information. If your utility company doesn’t offer the service, a qualified electrician can install this device at your electrical panel.
Lightning Protection Systems
18. These systems provide a direct path for lightning to follow to the ground rather than through the house structure and its wiring.
19. Consult a qualified contractor (UL-listed/LPI-certified or qualified electrician) for installation.
For information on protecting your family and home from severe weather, visit FLASH. To learn more about protecting your home from lightning visit the FLASH YouTube Channel.