Lightning is hotter than the surface of the sun and can reach temperatures of around 50,000 degrees Fahrenheit.
Although lightning fatalities have decreased in the past 30 years, lightning kills an average of 47 people in the United States each year and injures hundreds more. Survivors of strikes often report a variety of long-term, debilitating symptoms like short-term memory loss, fatigue, loss of concentration or change in personality.
There are safety measures that you can implement and precautions you can take to ensure you and your loved ones remain safe during a severe thunderstorm.
Chapter 1: Property Damage from Lightning Strikes
Lightning, or the electrical charge caused by storm clouds and the ground, can be found in thunderstorms. It can also occur during intense forest fires, volcanic eruptions, heavy snowstorms, surface nuclear detonations and large hurricanes.
If you are a homeowner, renter or a business owner you should be aware of the damage that a lightning strike can cause to your structure. Preparing for lightning damage might include having a fire extinguisher on hand, trimming tree branches that could fall in heavy winds or insuring your property.
Lightning bolts can start fires by igniting flammable surfaces in your home. Electrical fires can begin if your house’s wiring conducts a sudden and intense burst of electricity. Lightning can also destroy electronics within your home if they are plugged into electrical sockets. If you know that a large storm is on the way, make sure to unplug all televisions, computers and other expensive devices.
Outdoors, lightning can cause damage to fences, trees, lawn equipment and structures.
Chapter 2: Lightning Safety Tips
More people die or are injured by lightning strikes in the summer months. About half of lighting fatalities last year occurred when people were standing under a tree, which is one of the worst places you can take shelter during a storm.
The safest place you can be to avoid a lightning strike is inside a secure building that has four walls and a roof. You are not necessarily safe if you are under a picnic pavilion or carport or inside of a tent.
Taking Shelter in Your Home
One of the safest places you can take shelter during a lightning storm is inside your own home. Be sure to stay inside and avoid going outdoors until the storm has completely ceased. Lighting can strike before and after a storm. It’s important to remember that just because it has stopped raining does not mean it’s safe.
Taking Shelter Outside of the Home
If you are caught outside during a lightning storm, it’s important to remember to look for any shelter available. You don’t want to be caught out in a field during a lightning storm. If there is no shelter available you should:
- Stay low: Find the lowest spot you can, like a ditch or a depression. Try your hardest not to be the tallest thing in your area.
- Avoid bodies of water: While water does not attract lightning, it is an excellent conductor of electricity. If you are around water at the beach, a lake or a pool and you see a storm coming in, move away from the water and seek shelter.
- Avoid tents and pavilions: Standing under an open shelter is risky, as most tents and pavilions are made of metal and could attract lightning. Getting into a car is a much safer option.
- Get into a car: Being in a car is not the safest place you can be during a thunderstorm, but it’s better than being out in the open. While it’s a common belief that a car’s rubber tires will ground a car and keep you safe, that’s not necessarily true. Avoid touching the metal in the car as it will disperse the lighting if your car is struck.
- Seek shelter immediately: A lightning storm does not have to be close by for lightning to strike. Lightning can strike up to 15 miles away from a thunderstorm, even if it’s not raining. If you hear thunder or see lightning it’s best to seek shelter, even if the storm is not in your immediate vicinity.
Chapter 3: Lightning Safety and the Home
You are much less likely to be struck by lightning if you are inside your home. However, it’s still important to follow basic safety precautions inside during a thunderstorm.
Indoor Lightning Safety Tips
The dangerous electrical current associated with a lightning strike typically enters a structure through the wires, cables or pipes that connect the building. It can also enter your home through an open window, door or garage door. The dangerous current can travel through electrical, phone and cable wires as well as through the plumbing system.
During a lightning storm there are several tips you can follow to stay safe:
- Avoid corded electronics: Do not use personal computers, keyboards, game consoles and corded phones during a lightning storm. Corded electronic devices are the leading cause of indoor lightning injuries, as the electrical current can travel through their wiring.
- Pull the plug: Unplug all of your television sets and electronic devices as they can carry electrical current from an outside cable or satellite system.
- Close windows and doors: Stay away from open windows, doors and garage doors as the lightning can travel through the opening to electrocute you. It’s not safe to watch a lightning storm from a porch or open garage door.
- Stay away from plumbing: It’s incredibly important to avoid using the plumbing during. Don’t use the sinks, bathtubs or showers as the electrical current can travel through them to injure you. Don’t wash your hands, give children a bath or take a shower if there are storms nearby. It’s also best to wait to do your laundry until after the storm.
- Avoid concrete: Most concrete has metal rods running through it which can make it a conductor if lightning hits your house. Don’t lie on concrete floors or lean on concrete walls during a thunderstorm.
Making an Emergency Preparedness Kit
In the event that a severe storm knocks out your power or lasts a long period of time, it’s a smart idea to have an emergency preparedness kit on hand. The below items are fairly inexpensive and easy to find.
Once you’ve gathered the basic items, you will want to consider any unique needs your home might have, like supplies for pets or seniors. You will need:
- Water: Have one gallon of water per person per day for at least three days ready for drinking and sanitation.
- Food: It’s best to have a three day supply of non-perishable food on hand. Keep in mind that you may not have electricity to prepare this food. Choose foods your family will eat and keep dietary restrictions in mind. Ready to eat canned meat, fruits and vegetables are a good choice to store, as well as protein or fruit bars, dry cereal or granola, peanut butter, dried fruit or canned juices. Don’t forget to pack a can opener!
- Battery-powered or hand-crank radio: A radio will allow you to stay connected to the news and alerts for your area if television, internet or cell phone towers are knocked out.
- Battery powered flashlight: Use a flashlight to see in the dark if the power is out. Keep a few extra sets of batteries handy as well.
- First aid kit: Keep medicine, bandages and antiseptic handy in case someone is injured during the storm.
- Whistle: A whistle will help you signal for help if you are unable to for any other reason.
- Personal sanitation items: Keep moist towelettes, garbage bags and plastic ties available for personal sanitation.
- A wrench or pliers: These tools can be used to turn off or on utilities.
Assemble your kit in airtight plastic bags and put the entire disaster kit into one or two easy to transport containers.
Chapter 4: Lightning Safety for Children
Teaching your kids about lightning safety will help them understand what is happening during a storm and how to stay safe. Make sure they know what to do if they are inside or outside and they see a storm approaching. Children will often become afraid when thunderstorms roll in so it’s important to teach them to stay calm and practice safety precautions.
Determining How Far Away a Lightning Storm Is
If your child is playing outside and they hear thunder, they should know how to figure out how far away the lightning is. Since lightning can strike 10 miles from a thunderstorm (although it rarely strikes past six miles away), it’s important to seek shelter if the storm is under six miles away.
The rule of thumb for figuring out the distance of a storm is to count the seconds in between seeing a lightning strike and hearing the thunder and then divide the time by five. For example, if you count 10 seconds in between a lighting strike and clap of thunder, the storm is only about two miles away. Teach your kids that they should be able to count to 30 in between seeing lightning strikes and hearing thunder which means it is six miles away.
Teaching Kids About Lightning Safety
Teach your children to always watch a thunderstorm from inside rather than from open windows, doors, garage doors or the porch. If the wind gets severe, stay away from windows in case flying debris hits the window.
Teach your children not to use the plumbing system and to avoid corded electronics, television sets and anything else that may conduct electricity.
Have a safe place to go in case of a severe thunderstorm or tornadoes like a tornado shelter, basement, center hallway, bathroom, closet or the lowest room of your house that doesn’t have windows. Have your supply kit handy and teach your children where it is.
Some great educational resources for children and storms include:
- Weather Wiz Kids Lightning Facts
- Weather Wiz Kids Thunderstorm Safety
- Thunder and Lightning Explained for Kids
- Thunder and Lightning Activities for Kids
- Thunderstorm Safety from KidsHealth
Keeping Your Kids Calm During a Lighting Storm
Keeping your children calm during the thunder and lightning of a heavy storm can be a difficult task. It may help to have a specific safe place in the house that you go during thunderstorms. This spot should be away from windows and close to emergency supplies.
Create a comfortable and fun place to hide out that is relaxing and familiar. Create a positive space with pillows, blankets, stuffed animals and other cozy items. You can make a “fun storm kit” that includes games, art supplies, puzzles and battery operated electronic games.
Chapter 5: Lightning Safety for Pets
Records for the number of animals struck by lightning are not nearly as robust as for humans, but it does happen. In fact, it’s one of the leading causes of accidental livestock deaths.
The Department of Atmospheric Sciences at Texas A&M University cites that hundreds of livestock are killed annually by lightning. This is likely because they huddle underneath trees for shelter, which is one of the worst things you can do during a lightning storm.
Your pets are likely to do something similar if they are left outside during a storm so you should bring all pets inside if you see one coming. Pets may have little to no protection if left out in a lightning storm, especially if you have a large yard. Dog houses or metal shelters are not a safe place for them to seek shelter.
Cats might seek shelter under cars or in the motor department. This puts them at risk if the car gets struck by lightning because of how well metal conducts electricity.
If you see a storm coming, make sure your pets are inside a fully enclosed building, preferably inside the home with you. Horses or other livestock should be put in a barn if possible.
Providing Shelter Before the Storm
The sound of thunder can be frightening to animals, even more so than the sight of lightning. Hearing the thunder can scare them into running for cover and potentially into danger.
Many pet owners make the mistake of waiting until the storm is near to bring their pets inside. Pets might be able to hear thunder many miles before a storm has arrived and may try to run for cover. If there is severe weather in the forecast, it’s best to preemptively provide your pets with shelter.
Decide on a place either inside your home or in an enclosed barn or structure to set up a safe space. Fill the area with blankets, pillows, treats and toys so that your pet will feel relaxed and comfortable. If you can, condition your pet to associate this location with safety by periodically inviting them to spend time there.
When it starts looking like a storm is coming bring your pet inside to the designated area they have been trained to feel comfortable in. Be sure to give them treats and praise them for their cooperation. Ensure that there is no way they can escape back outside once they are in by double checking all doors and openings.
Keeping Pets Calm During a Storm
If your pet exhibits fearful or anxious behavior during thunderstorms it’s best to consult your veterinarian about options. There are herbal remedies as well as anti-anxiety medication available for pets. Some medications are prescription only and others can be purchased over the counter.
You can also buy compression clothing such as a ThunderShirt that is designed to reduce anxiety and provide comfort. A blanket or quilt can also be comforting for your frightened pet.
Some other ways to help your pet stay calm during a storm are:
- Keep your pet in a dim room with limited windows.
- If there are windows, close the curtains and blinds.
- Stay by their side and gently groom them.
- Keep them away from exits so they cannot bolt out the door.
Emergency Outdoor Safety
While it’s important to get yourself and your pets inside if you know a storm is approaching, it’s also important to have a plan in case you are stuck outside. If you are far from home while out walking your pet or spending time outside there are a few precautions you can take to keep you both safe during a storm.
- Stay calm: Your pet can sense when you are panicked and may mirror the reaction. Stay as calm and collected as possible.
- Seek shelter: If you can seek shelter in a nearby enclosed building, do so immediately.
- Avoid high ground: Get yourself and your pet away from bridges, hills or large trees. If needed, crouch into a ditch.
- Avoid metal: Keep yourself and your pet away from metal fences or wires, as they conduct electricity.
Chapter 6: Lightning Safety for the Elderly and Disabled
Senior citizens and disabled people may have different emergency preparedness needs than most. When preparing to keep your disabled or elderly loved ones safe, keep these needs in mind.
People with limited mobility should avoid leaving the home if a large storm is on the way to avoid getting caught without proper shelter. Work with seniors and those that are disabled in your life ahead of time to map out the safest evacuation route or emergency preparedness plan.
Preparing a Special Emergency Kit
Be sure any elderly or disabled loved one is able to easily move around their home, even if it’s dark. Prepare an emergency kit that has essential items to help the person survive for several days in case they are unable to leave their house or call for help.
The kit should include everything the regular preparedness kit includes (link to prep kit chapter) but with certain modifications.
- Extra medical supplies the person might need
- Easy to open food that doesn’t need to be heated
- Soft food like canned vegetables, canned tuna or chicken or canned fruit
- Bottled water
Making an Emergency Plan for Seniors, Disabled Persons and Caretakers
Senior citizens, those that are disabled and caretakers should have important phone numbers written down in a place they can easily find them. Even if your loved one might have these numbers memorized, it’s easy to forget them in an emergency situation.
It is smart for them to discuss an emergency plan with a neighbor or loved one ahead of time and make sure keys to their home have been exchanged. Neighbors should know where the elderly or disabled person keeps their emergency supplies and food.
More Lightning Safety Tips
During the storm, it’s important to remind your elderly or disabled loved one not to take a bath or shower or do chores that involve water like the dishes.
If you are a caretaker for someone who is elderly or disabled and do not live nearby, resist the urge to go out into the storm yourself to get to them. Wait until the storm has died down before checking on your loved one. If the phone is working, call your loved one instead.
Chapter 7: What to do If Lightning Strikes
In the unlucky event that you or someone you are with is struck by lightning, or if lightning strikes your home, you should proceed with caution. If there is ongoing lightning be sure to wait until it’s safe to take action.
Getting struck by lightning can cause cardiac arrest so CPR (or child CPR) may be required. The body does not retain an electrical charge, so it’s OK to touch someone who has been struck. Move the victim to a safer place and do not remove burned clothing from the victim unless it is necessary.
Calling for Help
It is important to call for medical help as soon as you are able. Dial 911 or your local ambulance service on the telephone. Check to see if the victim is breathing or has a pulse and continue to monitor them until help arrives. If you suspect they have gone into cardiac arrest and can perform CPR, do so until help arrives.
Surviving the Aftermath
After any lightning strike, victims are safe and the storm has passed, take time to survey the damage to your home. While you are picking up debris or making repairs, make sure to use protection and be careful.
Always stay away from downed power lines, as they can be dangerous and cause injury. Report them to the power company, and also report any ruptured gas lines to emergency services.
There are several helpful resources online to learn more about lightning safety.
- Lightning Strike & Electric Shock Survivors International
- What happens to people who are hit by lightning?
- Lightning Safety Tips and Resources
- American Red Cross
- Federal Emergency Management Agency