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Hit by Lightning: Tales From Survivors

James Church at fishing jetty where he was struck by lightning earlier this year, at Lighthouse Point Park in Ponce Inlet, Fla., July 13, 2017. Florida leads the nation in lightning strikes, a danger many here fail to appreciate: Church was fishing and though he was safe because he could not hear thunder from the storm on the horizon. [Scott McIntyre | The New York Times]

James Church at fishing jetty where he was struck by lightning earlier this year, at Lighthouse Point Park in Ponce Inlet, Fla., July 13, 2017. Florida leads the nation in lightning strikes, a danger many here fail to appreciate: Church was fishing and though he was safe because he could not hear thunder from the storm on the horizon. [Scott McIntyre | The New York Times]

PONCE INLET — It was a drizzly, dark January morning, but James Church grabbed his fishing pole and tackle box anyway, hopped in his Jeep and headed for the jetty, eager to get in some fishing as an antidote to a hard week of work.

Wearing his brown rubber waders and a yellow rain jacket to keep out the 6 a.m. cold, Church, 55, cast back his pole and let loose the line and sinker. He saw lightning on the horizon far away and felt safe. Then a bolt struck. He remembers a deafening boom and a flash so bright he felt his eyes burn. He woke up against a metal railing 6 feet away. Lying on his back, alone, in the dark, his body felt paralyzed. He knew he had to reach his cellphone to get help, but it was locked in the tackle box.

"My will to survive kicked in," Church said. "I needed to get moving instead of just lying there."

Electric Hotbed

In a state that counts alligators, sharks and hurricanes among its many dangers, add lightning. Florida has more lightning than any other state in the country (20.8 strikes per square mile) and the most people who die from lightning (54 since 2007 — more than double that of the next state, Texas), according to the National Weather Service. This year, four people have died from lightning — two construction workers, a camper and the baby of a pregnant mother who was seriously harmed by a bolt; many more have been injured.

Lightning's fondness for Florida stems from its location, climate (hot and humid) and topography: A peninsula, it stretches between two warm bodies of water, the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico. This produces hot, wet air — a sea breeze — that rises over land.

"We have the best place in the country for thunderstorms," said Martin A. Uman, a distinguished professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Florida and the author of "The Art and Science of Lightning Protection." "It takes rising, hot, moist air to make thunderstorms."

Unlike other states, Florida has all-season thunderstorms, which peak during summer. And it has an outsize number of year-round boaters, beachgoers, fishing enthusiasts and golfers — human lightning rods in wide, flat, open spaces. Lightning likes to strike the tallest thing around. Sometimes it's a tree. Sometimes it's a human.

While the odds of being hit are extremely low, lightning is unpredictable. It can lurk far from where you think danger lives. Floridians are trained to listen for thunder. The savvier among us know to count the seconds between seeing lightning and hearing a rumble (for every five seconds, the lightning is 1 mile away). But lightning defies those expectations. It can strike 10 miles away from a cloud.

A Lucky Strike

Church said he couldn't hear any thunder from the jetty. It was drizzling. And yet he got hit — hard. As he lay on his back in the dark on Jan. 7, Church, a martial arts teacher, tried to move but couldn't — a common reaction to lightning. It short-circuits your body. After a time, he flipped himself onto his stomach but couldn't get up. He felt a surge of liquid pour out of his belly. Blood.

Then he slowly crawled to his tackle box and tried to open it. That's when he noticed two of his fingers — the right ring finger and pinkie — were almost entirely gone. He used his thumbs to snap it open, grabbed his phone and called 911.

"I just got hit by lightning," he told the 911 operator. "I lost two fingers. They are completely gone," he added later between moans. "Everything is starting to hurt a little bit now."

[Scott Mcintyre for The New York Times]

Church lost two of his fingers in the lightning strike. The incident has changed him in some ways, he said: "I just pay attention to life more."

Church was lucky: the lightning missed his heart. Most people hit by lightning die because their hearts stop. But it still left lasting damage. The lightning hit his fishing pole and exploded the metal sinker toward his face. Because he was resting the pole near his right hip, the force of the lightning shoved it into his stomach. His elbow had been against his hip so the current traveled there and along his forearm. It left his body through his two fingers.

He spent nine hours in surgery. Doctors cut open his stomach and took out half of his small and large intestines, which had been burned and damaged. Then they sewed up his fingers. His stomach, arm and wrist still have burn marks. His rain jacket was shredded. His eardrums had burst.

Six months later, he said he made it a point to enjoy life just a little more, even though, with no insurance, he is still paying his medical bills, and storms can easily spook him. He takes weekends off, and hangs with his grandchildren. "I just pay attention to life more," he said.

Scars Inside and Out

For Falk Weltzien, the worst almost happened. His heart stopped for several minutes. Weltzien was about to kiteboard on Vilano Beach, next to St. Augustine, with his 14-year-old son the afternoon of Oct. 1, 2012. There were no black clouds or thunder; it was overcast.

Luckily, a nurse was walking down the beach and started performing CPR. Weltzien, 39 at the time, was foaming at the mouth and turning purple. In the hospital, tests were run and burns treated that ran across the back of his neck and left forearm.

The worst pain came a short while later, he said. His back felt as if it were burning. "It was the nerves healing," he said, a nerve condition called neuropathy. "It lasted 30 days and it was excruciating pain. Painkillers didn't help. It was nonstop, the worst."

[Mauricio Lima for The New York Times]

Falk Weltzien at a skate park near his home in Jundiaí, Brazil. He was struck by lightning in 2012 on a Florida beach, but he continues to kiteboard and play golf regularly.

His left arm still has nerve damage and his eardrums were damaged, something he discovered getting on a plane shortly after the incident. The ear pressure was almost unbearable, he said. He also noticed he felt winded when he kiteboarded or surfed. After running tests and X-rays, doctors noticed something about his left lung.

"One half is completely black," he said. "I only have half a lung working there."

Dr. Mary Ann Cooper, a professor emerita at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and an expert on lightning injuries, said lightning can cause a wide range of damage, from tingling and numbness to cardiac arrest and lasting brain injury. About two-thirds of people lose consciousness, she said. Fewer than half suffer marks on their skin. And most are hurt by electricity as the current travels through the ground. The Weather Service estimates only 10 percent of those hit by lightning die.

It's not a club anyone wants to join, but survivors often crave one another's company. This gave rise to Lightning Strike & Electric Shock Survivors International, which has members from around the United States and in 13 countries.

The most common injury is a concussionlike brain injury, Cooper said. She added that memory problems, nerve damage and chronic pain were also typical and could last a lifetime.

That's what happened to Cameron Poimboeuf, a Charlotte, North Carolina, resident, who was struck last July near Clearwater. Cameron, then 15, was playing Pokemon Go with a friend. As they ran for shelter from an approaching storm, he was hit and his heart stopped. Cassandra Thomas, a pediatric nurse standing on a balcony, saw it happen and raced down nine flights of stairs and across the beach to reach him. She did CPR for about 20 minutes, with the help of an off-duty officer.

Predictions were dire: Cameron would not recover or his brain would be seriously damaged.

But he lived and largely recovered. "It's hard not to see God in that," his mother, Karen Poimboeuf, said. Cameron still suffers from invisible wounds, post-traumatic stress disorder, nerve pain, mood swings, sleeplessness and anxiety. His friend also was hit and suffered short-term leg immobility because of the shock to the nerves, but is fine.

For Weltzien, any lingering pain is pushed aside. He still kiteboards regularly and plays golf. "I'm not really scared," he said. "I believe things happen for a reason."

A Weatherman's Report

[Maddie McGarvey for The New York Times]

Brad Sussman was a meteorologist in Florida when a bolt of lightning struck him at home in the early 1990s. He now sells insurance in Ohio.

Brad Sussman's lightning bolt was forged in irony. "I knew everything about lightning," he said. That's because he was chief meteorologist at a Jacksonville station and sat on the county's lightning safety board back then, in the early 1990s.

One afternoon, rain was pounding his house and Sussman saw an open window on the screened porch. He walked over to the metal window frame and put his right hand on it. Next thing he knew, he was flat on his back 18 feet away.

"My 2 1/2-year-old son says, ‘Daddy, that was funny. Do that again,'" said Sussman, who now sells insurance in Cleveland. Sussman was speechless; he literally couldn't talk. A neighbor heard the boom and walked into the house. "How could I be struck by lightning?" Sussman told him. "I'm a meteorologist."

The evidence was on the porch roof: a burned hole. The lightning had traveled across to the window frame. Sussman walked away with only a small burn on his right shoulder blade, a loopy feeling for a couple of hours and more respect for lightning. "When lightning strikes nearby," he said, "wow, do I get scared."

__

Stay Safe Out There

From 2006 through 2016, 352 people in the United States were killed by lightning strikes, and many more were seriously injured. What should you do when a thunderstorm is in the air? Here are tips from the National Weather Service.

Are you inside? Lightning can sneak up on you through plumbing and wires. Don't wash hands, dishes or take a shower. Don't use your computer. Stay away from windows, doors and porches.

Are you outside? Thunder means lightning is close by, even if it sounds far away. Take shelter immediately in a sturdy building. No building nearby? Get inside a car (but not a convertible). Keep the windows up and don't touch the ignition, radio or steering wheel. On a boat? Go inside the cabin. No cabin? Lie low. You never want to be the tallest object. Wait 30 minutes until the last rumble to go outside. Lightning can strike 10 miles from a storm.

Are you camping? A man in Florida died this month when a lightning storm broke out while he was camping. Avoid open fields and the tops of hills or ridges. Stay away from tall, isolated trees.

Are you swimming? If you are in the water, get out. Avoid contact with metal. Metal and water do not attract lightning, but they are conductors of electricity.

Are you playing golf? Most courses in Florida have sirens to alert players that a lightning storm is on the way. Holding a club aloft in a storm is particularly unwise. But in fact, more people have been killed while playing soccer than while playing golf.

Are you at work? Farmhands and ranch workers have been the most frequent victims of deadly lightning: Of those who died from 2007 to 2016, 31 percent held those jobs. Roofers also face high risk.

Are you in Seattle? After Florida, Texas has the most deaths from lightning, followed by Louisiana, Mississippi, Arkansas and Oklahoma. Washington state residents are the least likely to die from a lightning strike.

Are you a gambler? You have a 1-in-13,500 chance of being struck during your lifetime, and a 1-in-1,083,000 chance of being hit in a single year.

Hit by Lightning: Tales From Survivors 07/19/17 [Last modified: Wednesday, July 19, 2017 1:55pm]
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