Hey, Florida, lightning strike capital of the U.S. ... Say goodbye to Dr. Lightning

Considered the lightning strike capital of the U.S., Florida leads the country in both the number of fatal hits and the density of strikes, with just over 20 flashes per square mile every year.
Lightning strikes inland east of the Dunedin Causeway in July 2018 as storms work their way through Hillsborough and Pinellas counties. (DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD   |   Times
Lightning strikes inland east of the Dunedin Causeway in July 2018 as storms work their way through Hillsborough and Pinellas counties. (DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times
Published Feb. 7, 2019

Florida is the lightning strike capital of the nation. Almost nobody knows that more intimately than John Jensenius.

For nearly two decades, the National Weather Service meteorologist has had the grisly chore of collecting stats on lightning victims, archiving every fatal blow. From golfers to roofers, Jensenius recorded names, ages, locations, and the particular activity that led the victim to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Each painful account went into a spreadsheet created in service of a higher goal: warning the public that death by lightning is almost always an avoidable way to go.

Related: Tampa woman's friend killed by lightning strike, right in front of her

Last month, during the government shutdown and after nearly 42 years with the National Weather Service, Jensenius, better known as Dr. Lightning, retired. His departure won't end what has become one of the most comprehensive catalogs on lightning danger — he plans to continue his work as a volunteer for the National Lightning Safety Council. But it does mark the end of a career that stretched from the days of the Teletype to the latest high-powered weather satellites.

"It's hard for people to imagine, but back when I started ... there were no personal computers and you didn't have a monitor to look at," he said.

If he wanted to write a program, Jensenius would use a punch card to punch out instructions and turn over stacks of cards to a computer programmer who recorded the information on magnetic tape. If he wanted to run a program, Jensenius had to ask a tech to load the 12- and 14-inch reels onto a mainframe. About a week later he'd get the results, printed on paper.

For the first chapter of his career, Jensenius focused on work far different than lightning safety: early computer modeling. Stationed at the Service's Techniques Development Lab in Maryland for 17 years, he and other meteorologists perfected forecast modeling and an array of warning systems that later included storm surge forecasting. At one point, he oversaw 100 operational programs used to produce daily forecasts that were Teletyped, and later faxed, to weather offices and TV meteorologists around the country. Fun fact: Even after the internet replaced the Teletype, the weather service continued using the all-cap font until 2016, when it relented amid complaints.

"It got to the point where people were asking why are you always shouting," Jensenius said.

He also came up with a way to get forecasts out to field offices hourly, which was expanded nationally and led to the creation of programs now widely used to convey dangers and warnings in graphics, the National Weather Service said in a press release.

His work won him a Department of Commerce bronze medal.

It was when he was assigned to a regional weather office as a warning coordinator meteorologist in the tiny town of Gray, Maine — outside Portland — in 1994, that Dr. Lightning was born.

As a kid in Pennsylvania, Jensenius was fascinated with measuring snow and watching lightning. So when he noticed that Maine had an alarmingly high number of lightning fatalities, he wondered why. The state had far less lightning than almost anyplace east of the Rockies, but it ranked fourth for fatalities. Nothing else particular stood out about the state, so Jensenius decided to launch a safety program thinking people just needed to be more informed. It appeared to work. Numbers fell. So in 2001, the weather service decided to expand the program.

Jensenius said some of the most important lessons might seem like the most obvious, like simply paying attention to the sky and making time to escape storms. If you can hear thunder, he said, you're within range of lightning — never mind waiting to see a flash. And the back end of a storm can be just as deadly, so the service reminded people to wait a full 30 minutes after it passed.

As he came into contact with more reporters, Jensenius said he realized stories with statistics were more effective, so he started compiling numbers for fatal strikes. But as he dug into records going back to the '40s, he noticed that some deaths were slipping through the cracks. That led him to begin his own sleuthing.

One of his chief sources became local newspapers that reported deaths or printed obituaries that didn't appear in bigger outlets. He created a spreadsheet entering basic information — the date, location, victim's age, sex, name and what they were doing when they were struck. In recent years, he's added links to newspaper stories with details about the deaths.

He would often look for follow-up stories or obituaries, searching each sorrowful detail for clues that might prevent the next death.

"I'm trying to put myself out of business, let's put it that way," he said.

Each case is painful in its own way, whether it's a child hit while playing or a dad on the 4th of July. The most devastating, he said, can be the victims left with lifelong, debilitating injuries. He still keeps tabs on one victim, Army vet Luke Shimer, who was hit while sitting on a porch watching a thunderstorm in 2016.

"I don't like to see the sadness that it brings to the families," he said. "But I look at it as these people haven't died for nothing."

Over the years, much of Jensenius' work has centered around Florida even as he continued to forecast more blustery weather from his office in Maine. The state has the highest density of lightning strikes, with a five-year average of 20.1 per square mile every year. It also has repeatedly led the U.S. in the number of fatal strikes. Between 2007 and 2018, 47 people were killed. Texas, which is more populous, came in second, but at far fewer: just 20.

Why Florida holds the title is a combination of weather and people. The state's heat and humidity set the stage for lightning. Its sea breezes provide the match. (That also explains why states lining the Gulf of Mexico rank high.) Add all the people heading to the beach, boating, golfing, doing yard work, fixing roofs, kayaking or any number of outside activities, and it's easy to understand why year after year numbers remain high.

Jensenius said forecasts have vastly improved. But even though afternoon thunderstorms in the rainy season, even without a weather app, should be easy to predict, people still ignore warnings or give themselves too little time to escape.

"Lightning strikes for the most part are preventable. Really it comes down to monitoring conditions and changing people's behavior," he said, by staying inside during a storm and away from windows and doors. Some schools in Florida have even begun delaying afternoon releases during storms, he said.

When he started the project in 2001, deaths by lightning had dropped to a five-year average of 47 nationally. Bosses told him they didn't think the number could get much lower. But the number has dipped to 21 over the last five years and just 20 last year.

"That's the second lowest we've ever seen," he said. "So if you think about it, there have been 27 people who didn't get killed."