Sunday, February 25, 2018
Public safety

Florida leads the nation in deadly lightning strikes (w/video)

On Aug. 3, a dazed motorcyclist wandered into a St. Petersburg gas station. He had sought shelter under the station's awning and was struck by lightning.

When paramedics arrived, the man had recovered enough to refuse treatment. He was lucky. Though rare, fatal lightning strikes this year have been more prevalent in Florida than any other state in the nation.

Lightning doesn't capture as many headlines as, say, a shark attack, but can be deadlier. So far this year it has killed in a Milton blueberry patch, on two rooftops, at the edge of a Plant City lake and on a Fort Myers beach.

The Tampa Bay area is particularly prone. Every square kilometer of "Lightning Alley" sees nine strikes a year, said Tyler Fleming, a forecaster for the National Weather Service.

Of the 19 lightning deaths reported nationwide so far this year, six have occurred in Florida.

Lightning is so prevalent here, Fleming said, because the state is one big peninsula and sea breezes from the gulf tend to push in thunderstorms with frequency, he said.

"July is normally the peak time for the whole country and Florida in particular," he said.

Lightning strikes that kill often do so by knocking the heart into a rhythm it can't maintain, said Dr. Jeremy Ingram, an emergency room physician at Bayfront Health St. Petersburg. He likened it to applying a defibrillator paddle to a healthy heart.

"If you shock the normal heart, you'll put it into a fatal rhythm," Ingram said.

Even though survivors can be considered fortunate, they can be left with hearing loss, cataracts, numbness, dizziness, memory loss and cardiac problems.

How one is struck makes all the difference.

"You're going to have probably a much better chance of surviving if it's an indirect hit versus a direct hit," Ingram said.

In 2007, Jonathan Farmer survived an indirect hit in a Sam's Club parking lot off Brandon Boulevard.

Farmer left his wife under an awning and went to get his pickup. It was raining, and he remembers being too afraid to use his umbrella because it might attract lightning.

It struck as he reached for his door handle.

"Everybody said two seconds later there was a gigantic boom," said Farmer, 58.

He lost consciousness and woke up on the ground by the truck's back tire. From entry and exit wounds still visible on his left thumb and left foot, he deduced that the bolt had struck his truck, entered his hand and exited into the ground.

It left a hole in his shoe and a black mark on the pavement where he'd been standing.

"I was trying to get up off the ground, but I couldn't because my whole left side was numb, like when your leg falls asleep on you," Farmer said.

Advice for avoiding lightning strikes is fairly straightforward: Stay inside. But Floridians love their outdoor play, from golfing and swimming to walking the beach. Waiting to actually see lightning before heading indoors at the sign of a storm can be a dangerous gamble.

Jerry Heard, a former PGA Tour winner who now lives in Fort Myers, got caught in a summer storm on a Chicago golf course during the 1975 Western Open. He and a fellow golf pro were struck as they sat on the ground huddled under overlapping umbrellas.

"It basically hit us where the umbrellas were touching us," said Heard, 67.

He was burned in the groin. His friend had burns across his back. Both had back surgery to correct slipped discs and continue to suffer back pain, he said, but he knows it could have been much worse.

"The lightning strike actually hit us at the right point of our heartbeat," Heard said. "If it had hit us at a different time it could have killed us."

Now Heard is more cautious. He thinks often of how he should have followed his first instinct that day and hopped on the golf cart and left the course. "That's just being stupid," he said.

But there are times when a lightning strike can't be foreseen, forecasters say. They call it the "bolt from the blue."

Kevin Wohnsen, 25, thinks that is what struck him as he swam in the Weeki Wachee River under a clear sky in 2007.

"I remember there was a blue flash, and I only had enough breath to say 'help' really quietly," Wohnsen said.

His brother Tommy, who was standing on a brick wall nearby, heard his cry and jumped in. But as he touched Kevin, Tommy was electrocuted, too.

Both of their hearts stopped, and the brothers were in a coma for about two months, Kevin said. They awoke a day apart and had to learn how to walk and talk again.

Both have struggled with mental health problems and physical disabilities, he said.

Kevin said his heart still hurts, and his kidneys ache as well.

"They said it took half our life away when we died and came back, because it was hard on our organs," he said.

The National Weather Service chronicles stories like the Wohnsens' as part of an effort to urge precaution. The agency's website includes safety tips, a lightning blog and an ad campaign featuring a fisherman who warns: "When it comes to lightning, you don't want to catch the big one!"

Twenty-three people were killed by lightning in 2013 in the United States, the lowest since 2006, Fleming said. He hopes it's because the public is getting the message:

"When thunder roars, go indoors."

Times researcher Carolyn Eds contributed to this report. Contact Claire Wiseman at [email protected]. Follow @clairelwiseman.

 
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