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NEWS | June 14, 2011

101 Critical Days of Summer: Lightning and tornados - summer weather safety

By 628th Air Base Wing Safety Office

At any given moment, there are 1,800 thunderstorms in progress around the earth. According to the National Weather Service, this amounts to 16 million storms a year. In the United States, there are an estimated 25 million cloud-to-ground lightning flashes each year. While lightning can be fascinating to watch, it is also extremely dangerous.

According to further statistics kept by the National Weather Service, the 30-year average for lightning fatalities across the country is 61. Lightning usually claims only one or two victims at a time and because it does not cause mass destruction like a tornado or hurricane, receives much less attention than the more destructive storm-related events. Due to under reporting, it is estimated that about 100 - 120 deaths per year occur because of lightning. Documented lightning injuries in the United States average 300 per year; however undocumented lightning injuries are likely much higher.

Here are some lightning safety tips from the National Weather Service:


- Lightning can strike up to 10 miles from the rain area. Get inside a completely enclosed building before the storm arrives. Do not go to a carport, open garage, covered patio or open window. A hard-topped all metal vehicle also provides good protection.

- If shelter is not available, do not take shelter under a tree. Avoid being the tallest object in the area. If only isolated trees are nearby, crouch down on the balls of your feet in the open, keeping twice as far away from a tree as it is tall- Get out of the water, off the beach and out of small boats or canoes. Avoid standing in puddles of water even if wearing rubber boots.

- Do not use metal objects such as golf clubs, metal bats, fishing rods or metal tools.

- Stop tractor work and heavy construction equipment, especially when pulling metal equipment.


- Stay there. The best protection from lightning is a house or other substantial building. However, stay away from windows, doors and metal pipes.

- Do not use electric appliances during the storm. Turn off sensitive equipment such as televisions, VCRs and computers.

- Telephone use is the leading cause of indoor lightning injuries in the United States. Do not make a call unless it is an emergency.


The most violent tornadoes can level and blow away almost any house and its occupants. Extremely violent F5 tornadoes are very rare. Most tornadoes are actually much weaker and can be survived using these safety ideas by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

At home, have a family tornado plan in place based on the dwelling you live in and the safety tips below. Know where you can take shelter in a matter of seconds and practice a family tornado drill at least once a year. Have a pre-determined place to meet after a disaster.

- Flying debris is the greatest danger in tornadoes so store protective coverings (e.g., mattress, sleeping bags, thick blankets, etc.) in or next to your shelter space. When a tornado watch is issued check to make sure all your safety supplies are handy.

- Turn on local TV, radio or NOAA Weather Radio and stay alert for warnings. Forget about the old notion of opening windows to equalize pressure. The tornado will blast open the windows for you. If you shop frequently at certain stores, learn where there are bathrooms, storage rooms or other interior shelter areas away from windows and the shortest ways to get there.

- Administrators of schools, shopping centers, nursing homes, hospitals, sports arenas, stadiums, mobile home communities and offices should have a tornado safety plan in place with easy-to-read signs posted to direct everyone to a safe, close-by shelter area. Schools and office building managers should regularly run well-coordinated drills.

- If you are planning to build a house, especially east of the Rocky Mountains, consider an underground tornado shelter or an interior safe room. Also, consider owning a crank radio in case the power goes out.

Know the signs of a tornado:

Weather forecasting science is not perfect and some tornadoes do occur without a tornado warning. There is no substitute for staying alert to the sky. Besides an obviously visible tornado, here are some things to look and listen for:

- Strong, persistent rotation in the cloud base.

- Whirling dust or debris on the ground under a cloud base; tornadoes sometimes have no funnel.

- Hail or heavy rain followed by either dead calm or a fast, intense wind shift. Many tornadoes are wrapped in heavy precipitation and can't be seen.

- Day or night - a loud, continuous roar or rumble, which doesn't fade in a few seconds like thunder.