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Heed the crackle in the sky: Lightning kills

What started as a simple fishing trip for two Walton County brothers ended in tragedy Sunday after their 14-foot johnboat overturned in a summer squall. Investigators believe lightning may have played a part in their deaths.

The brothers, 21-year-old Lucas and 17-year-old Logan Alford, were fishing on Choctawhatchee Bay when a thunderstorm rolled through late in the afternoon.

"Investigators found two life jackets in their swamped boat," said Stan Kirkland, a spokesman for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. "We are waiting for a report from the medical examiner, but it appears that lightning may have played a role."

Lightning kills

Lightning is the result of the buildup and discharge of electrical energy. During a lightning strike the air is heated to about 50,000 degrees. This rapid heating of the air produces a shock wave that becomes thunder.

From 1977 to 2006, an average of 62 people were killed each year by lightning in the United States, according to data from the National Weather Service. Over the same span, that is more than were killed by tornadoes (54) or hurricanes (59). About eight to 10 of those lightning deaths occurred in Florida, which has been called the "Lightning capital of the United States" because of the frequency of strikes.

Most lightning storms develop in the afternoon; 70 percent between noon and 7 p.m. Boaters know to head for port when the large, anvil-shaped cumulus clouds begin to form.

St. Elmo's fire

If you are fishing and hear buzzing sounds from radio antennas or a mast starts to glow, you have waited too long to get safely out of harm's way. The glow on a masthead produced by a buildup of an electrical charge is known as St. Elmo's fire, and a lightning strike may be imminent.

If you see a flash of lightning, don't try to figure out how far away it is by counting "one Mississippi, two Mississippi, …" waiting for the thunder.

Instead, use the 30-30 rule. The first 30 stands for 30 seconds. When you see lightning, begin counting to 30. If you hear thunder before 30, the lightning is probably close enough to hit you.

The second 30 stands for 30 minutes. Wait 30 minutes after the last clap of thunder before you go back on the water. Remember, lightning can strike as far as 10 miles from the thunderstorm. Many fatalities occur well ahead of or after a storm has passed, hence the phrase "a bolt out of the blue."

What to do

If you are on the water and find yourself caught in a storm, get as low in the boat as possible. Stop fishing, store your rods and keep your hands and legs out of the water.

Boats, with electrical antennas, outriggers and aluminum towers, act as lightning rods. So disconnect electronics and lower your VHF radio antenna. Then, stay calm and wait it out.

The best bet is to avoid electrical storms in the first place. Buy a $10 weather radio or handheld VHF radio and keep it on your boat so you can listen for reports of approaching storms. If you only have an AM/FM radio, turn to AM and listen for the static caused by electrical storms.

Don't wait until the storm is on top of you. Remember the adage: "If you hear it, clear it. If you see it, flee it."

If you must count

You can tell how far away a lightning strike is by counting the seconds between seeing the flash and hearing the thunder. Five seconds equals one mile of distance. So if it takes 15 seconds between the time you saw the flash and heard the thunder, the lightning is 3 miles away, too close for comfort.

Sources: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, National Weather Service, myths from NWS Forecast Office

Myth busters

Myth: If it is not raining, there is no danger from lightning. Lightning often strikes outside the rain area as much as 10 miles (even greater distances in exceptional circumstances).

Myth: Heat lightning occurs after very hot summer days and poses no hazard. Heat lightning is a term to describe lightning from a thunderstorm too far away for the thunder to be heard. The lightning hazard increases as you move toward the storm and eventually the thunder will be heard.

Heed the crackle in the sky: Lightning kills 06/26/08 [Last modified: Friday, June 27, 2008 7:26am]
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