The Iowa State Fair.
Lightning strike over a House
Photo Copyright 2007 Kevin Skow. Used with Permission.

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Severe Weather: Lightning Safety

Before it Strikes . . .  
Planning Ahead
Understanding the Forecast
Receiving the Warning

Staying Safe . . .  
Hail and Straight Line Winds


Summer is the peak season for one of the nation's deadliest weather phenomena: lightning. But don't be fooled--lightning strikes year round. In the United States, an average of 58 people are killed by lightning each year and hundreds more are permanently injured.

Lightning survivors suffer from a variety of long-term, debilitating symptoms, including memory loss, attention deficits, sleep disorders, chronic pain, numbness, dizziness, stiffness in joints, irritability, fatigue, weakness, muscle spasms, depression, and more.

While lightning is the biggest threat to those outside, it still poses a danger to those inside. Select a section below to learn more about the dangers of lightning and how to stay safe.

When Thunder Roars, Go Indoors!

There is little you can do to reduce your risk of being hit by lightning if you are outside in a thunderstorm.
The only safe action is to get inside a safe building or vehicle.

Safe Buildings

A safe building is one that is fully enclosed with a roof, walls and floor, and has plumbing or wiring. Examples include a home, school, church, hotel, office building, or shopping center. Once inside, stay away from showers, sinks, bath tubs, windows, and electronic equipment.

Unsafe buildings include car ports, open garages, covered patios, picnic shelters, beach pavilions, golf shelters, tents of any kinds, baseball dugouts, sheds and greenhouses.

Safe Vehicles

A safe vehicle is any fully enclosed, metal-topped vehicle such as a hard-topped car, minivan, bus, truck, etc. While inside a safe vehicle, do not use electronic devices such as radio communications during a thunderstorm. Portable devices like cell phones and MP3 players are safe to use IF they are not plugged into the car. If you drive into a thunderstorm, slow down and use extra caution. If possible, pull off the road into a safe area. Do not leave the vehicle during a thunderstorm.

Unsafe vehicles include convertibles, golf carts, riding mowers, open cab construction equipment and boats without cabins.

Below are a few common outdoor scenarios with suggestions on how to safely respond to the lightning threat.
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  • General Safety

    Run to a safe building or vehicle when you first hear thunder, see lightning, or observe dark threatening clouds developing overhead. If you are close enough to hear thunder, you are close enough to be struck by lightning. Stay inside until 30 minutes after you hear the last clap of thunder. Do not take shelter under trees! You are not safe anywhere outside.

    Plan Ahead!

    Stay up-to date on the latest weather forecasts from your favorite source of weather information. If you are in a group, make sure all leaders or members of the group have a lightning safety plan and are ready to use it.
    If you are part of a large group and need extra time to get everyone to a safe place, it is recommended to have proven professional lightning detection equipment so your group can be alerted from significant distances from your location.

  • Outdoor Sports Teams

    You coach a little league team and have a game this evening at the local recreational park. The weather forecast for the day calls for partly cloudy skies, with a chance of thunderstorms by early evening. You arrive in your vehicle while the kids arrive with their parents. When you get to the park, you notice the only buildings are the restrooms (an enclosed building with plumbing and electricity). Shortly after sunset, the skies start to cloud up and you see bright flashes in the sky to the west.

    What should you do?

    In this case, you should get everyone into vehicles or the restrooms. Do NOT stay in the dugouts; they are not safe during lightning activity. Once at a safe place, wait 30 minutes after the last rumble of thunder before going back and resuming play.

  • Outdoor Venues (Concerts, Fairs, Sporting Events)

    State FairPeople outside in large groups, such as outdoor concerts, sporting events, and fairs, are very vulnerable to lighting. This is not only due to the difficulties involved in moving large numbers of people, but there is typically not a suitable shelter available to accommodate everyone. Event coordinators or managers should have a detailed lightning safety plan in place and practice it. People at large outdoor gatherings or events should be alert to deteriorating weather conditions and follow any instructions if a safety plan is put into action.

    However, if you hear thunder, do not wait for an official announcement--seek shelter now! If you are out at a fair, find a permanent, enclosed structure to seek shelter in. Tents, food stands, and equipment sheds are not safe! If you are at an outdoor sporting event or concert, the same principles apply. If there is no shelter available, take shelter in safe vehicles.

  • At the Beach

    Your family plans to go to the beach today. The weather forecast calls for a nice morning, followed by a 30 percent chance of afternoon thunderstorms. When you get to the beach, you see that the only nearby structures are open-sided picnic shelters. The parking lot is about a five minute walk from the beach. By early afternoon you notice the skies darkening and hear distant thunder.

    What should you do?

    Go to your car if it is a safe vehicle (not a convertible). Do NOT seek shelter under the beach picnic shelters. Wait 30 minutes until after the last rumble of thunder before going back to the beach. Alternatively, if a small restroom building was nearby, this could also serve as a suitable shelter.

  • Out On the Water

    The vast majority of lightning injuries and deaths on boats occur on small boats with NO cabin. Unsafe boats include: canoes, rafts, sail boats without a cabin, bass boats, ski boats, jet skis, and inner tubes. Boats with cabins offer a safer, but not perfect, environment. Safety is increased further if the boat has a properly installed lightning protection system. If you are inside the cabin, stay away from metal and all electrical components. STAY OFF THE RADIO UNLESS IT IS AN EMERGENCY.

    It is crucial to listen to weather information when you are out boating. If thunderstorms are forecast, do not go out. If you are out on the water and skies are threatening, get back to land and find a safe building or safe vehicle as soon as possible. It is important to note that just because a vessel is made of rubber does NOT make it safe to be in when lightning is occurring.

    If you are caught in a thunderstorm on a small boat, drop anchor and get as low as possible. Remember, lighting seeks out the tallest object around, so making yourself as low as possible reduces your chances of getting struck.

  • On the Golf Course

    Golfers are another vulnerable group of people since they are out on wide open courses with little in the way of shelter nearby. Trees and other structures surrounding the course can block your view of the horizon, making it difficult to see approaching storms.

    If you hear thunder in the distance, head inside immediately! It will likely take you some time to reach shelter, and you will likely not know how fast the storm is moving towards you.

    DO NOT take shelter in your golf cart, under trees, or in open buildings such as picnic shelters. Wait 30 minutes after the last rumble of thunder to resume your game.

  • Camping or Hiking

    You are cooking dinner on the camp stove when you hear distant rumbles of thunder. Your tent and a large open sided picnic shelter are nearby. Your vehicle is about 1/4 of a mile away, parked at the trail head.

    What should you do?

    Go to your vehicle! The tent and picnic shelter are NOT safe places. Wait 30 minutes until after the last rumble of thunder before going back to the campsite. For those who cannot get to a vehicle or safe building in the event of a storm, here are some tips to minimize your risk of being struck:

    • Avoid open fields, the top of a hill, or a ridge top.
    • Stay away from tall, isolated trees or other tall objects. If you are in a forest, stay near a lower stand of trees.
    • Stay away from water, wet items (such as ropes) and metal objects (such as fences and poles). Water and metal are excellent conductors of electricity. The current from a lightning strike will easily travel for long distances.
  • Out Riding a Motorcycle or Bike

    Motorcycles, dirt bikes, and bicycles provide no protection from lightning! Listen to commercial radio or carry a portable weather radio to listen to the latest information. An internet capable smartphone is also an excellent way to check on the latest weather conditions. If you see threatening skies in the distance and you are near a safe building, pull over and wait 30 minutes after the last rumble of thunder before resuming your ride.

    If you are caught out in the open with no safe shelter available, the best option is to pull over to the side of the road/trail and find the lowest spot nearby. Crouch down into a ball and wait for the storm to pass. Try to avoid ditches full of water, since water is an excellent conductor of electricity if lightning strikes nearby.

Bolts from the Blue

A lightning bolt can travel horizontally for many miles away from the thunderstorm and then strike the ground. These types of lightning bolts are called "Bolts from the Blue" because they seem to come out of a clear blue sky. While blue sky may exist overhead (or in part of the sky overhead) a thunderstorm is always located 5 to 10 miles (and sometimes even farther) away. Although these events are rare, they have caused fatalities.

Indoor Lightning Safety

Lightning over a House Remember: A SAFE Indoor shelter is a building with electricity and/or plumbing, or a hard topped vehicle with the windows closed. Picnic shelters, dugouts, and small buildings without plumbing/electricity are NOT safe.

Being inside of a house or other building keeps you safe from most lightning strikes. However, there are still a few guidelines you should follow indoors during a thunderstorm:

  • Stay off corded phones: You can still use cellular or cordless phones.
  • Don't touch electrical equipment and cords: Unplug electronic equipment before the storm arrives.
    • Any device that uses electricity is susceptible to a lightning strike. This includes computers, televisions, microwaves, stoves, and washing machines.
    • A general surge protector will do little to inhibit a lightning strike or a power surge caused by a lightning strike from damaging electrical equipment or injuring the person using them.
  • Avoid plumbing: Do not wash your hands, take a shower or wash dishes.
  • Stay away from windows and doors: Sitting under your front porch awning to watch the storm is the equivalent of being outside in the middle of the storm. Head inside immediately.
  • Refrain from touching concrete surfaces, such as those in a basement or garage. Lightning can also travel through any metal wires or bars in concrete walls or flooring.
  • Remember your pets: Dog houses are not safe shelters. Dogs that are chained to trees or wire runners can easily fall victim to a lightning strike. Bring pets inside.

When lightning strikes a house, or even strikes the ground near a house, any medium in the house that can conduct electricity is a pathway for the lightning to follow. The two major conductors of electricity in a house are electrical wires (including telephone and cable lines) and metal plumbing. Water inside of plumbing is also a very good conductor of electricity.

Helping Lightning Victims

Lightning is a major cause of storm related deaths in the United States. A lightning strike can result in a cardiac arrest (heart stopping) at the time of the injury, although some victims may die several days later if they are resuscitated but have suffered irreversible brain damage or other complications. Only about 10% of people who are struck by lightning are killed, leaving the other 90% with various degrees of disability.

If you see someone get struck by lightning, get emergency medical help as soon as possible! Call 9-1-1 and administer First Aid. If more than one person is struck by lightning, treat those who are unconscious first. They are at the greatest risk of dying. A person struck by lightning may appear dead, with no pulse or breath, but can often be revived with CPR. Treat those who are injured but conscious next. Common physical injuries from being struck by lightning are burns, wounds and bone fractures.

Remember: People struck by lightning do not carry an electrical charge. There is no danger of electrocution to anyone helping a person who has been struck by lightning!

Long Term Effects

The effects of a lightning strike can last for the rest of a victim's life. Some effects may emerge immediately after a strike while others could take years to develop. A lightning victim may experience one or more of the following effects after a strike:

  • Short-term memory loss
  • Problems processing new information and remembering old information
  • Problems Multitasking
  • Slower reaction time
  • Easily Distracted
  • Irritability
  • Personality change
  • Inattentive
  • Forgetfulness
  • Intense headaches
  • Ringing in the ears
  • Dizziness
  • Nausea, vomiting, and other post-concussion types of symptoms
  • Difficulty sleeping, sometimes sleeping excessively at first and then only two or three hours at a time
  • Seizure-like activity
  • Depression

Lightning Safety Myths and Truths

Myth:  Lightning never strikes the same place twice.
Fact:  Lightning often strikes the same place repeatedly, especially if it’s a tall, pointy, isolated object. The Empire State Building is hit nearly 100 times a year.

Myth: If it’s not raining or there aren’t clouds overhead, you’re safe from lightning.
Fact:  Lightning often strikes more than three miles from the center of the thunderstorm, far outside the rain or thunderstorm cloud. "Bolts from the Blue" can strike 10-15 miles from the thunderstorm.

Myth:  Rubber tires on a car protect you from lightning by insulating you from the ground.
Fact:  Most cars are safe from lightning, but it is the metal roof and metal sides that protect you, NOT the rubber tires. Remember, convertibles, motorcycles, bicycles, open-shelled outdoor recreational vehicles, and cars with fiberglass shells offer no protection from lightning. When lightning strikes a vehicle, it goes through the metal frame into the ground. Don't lean on doors during a thunderstorm.

Myth:  A lightning victim is electrified. If you touch them, you’ll be electrocuted.
Fact:  The human body does not store electricity. It is perfectly safe to touch a lightning victim to give them first aid. This is the most chilling of lightning myths. Imagine if someone died because people were afraid to give CPR!

Myth:  If outside in a thunderstorm, you should seek shelter under a tree to stay dry.
Fact:  Being underneath a tree is the second leading cause of lightning casualties. Better to get wet than struck!

Myth:  If you are in a house, you are 100% safe from lightning.
Fact:  A house is a safe place to be during a thunderstorm as long as you avoid anything that conducts electricity. This means staying off corded phones, electrical appliances, wires, TV cables, computers, plumbing, metal doors, and windows. Windows are hazardous for two reasons: wind generated during a thunderstorm can blow objects into the window, breaking it and causing glass to shatter and second, in older homes, in rare instances, lightning can come in cracks in the sides of windows.

Myth:  If thunderstorms threaten while you are outside playing a game, it is okay to finish it before seeking shelter.
Fact:  Many lightning casualties occur because people do not seek shelter soon enough. No game is worth death or life-long injuries. Seek proper shelter immediately if you hear thunder. Adults are responsible for the safety of children.

Myth:  Structures with metal, or metal on the body (jewelry, cell phones, MP3 players, watches, etc), attract lightning.
Fact:  Height, pointy shape, and isolation are the dominant factors controlling where a lightning bolt will strike. The presence of metal makes absolutely no difference on where lightning strikes. Mountains are made of stone but get struck by lightning many times a year. When lightning threatens, take proper protective action immediately by seeking a safe shelter--don’t waste time removing metal. While metal does not attract lightning, it does conduct it so stay away from metal fences, railings, bleachers, etc.

Myth:  If trapped outside in a lightning storm, I should lie flat on the ground.
Fact: Lying flat increases your chance of being affected by potentially deadly ground current. If you are caught outside in a thunderstorm, keep moving toward a safe shelter.

Information Courtesy of the NOAA Lightning Safety Page

Additional Information on Lightning Safety

NOAA Lightning Safety Page
Lightning Safety on the Job
National Outdoor Leadership School
Lightning Protection Systems for Structures (AMS)
Severe Thunderstorm Safety (pdf) is the U.S. government's official web portal to all federal, state and local government web resources and services.