I fear lightning. Years spent watching the jagged flashes slash against the Earth — and miss me — have not lessened my respect for the power and randomness of lightning. The storms this past holiday weekend reminded me, like a recurring dream that you forget about until it happens again and then memory reminds you about other times with close calls and roaring booms that follow the flash. I was enjoying a Labor Day weekend party late Sunday at a farm east of Cameron, Mo. We were at a cabin near a pond in a pasture with a wide-sky view. Clouds made the dusk dim. Then bigger clouds in a storm rolling in from the west darkened the night more deeply, until, lightning flashes made night as bright as day for an instant. Eyes try to adjust and focus, dark to light, back to mostly dark again, then light strobes again, the length varying with intensity of the bolt. Lightning is after all, electricity with positive or negative charges similar to what powers our light bulbs, digital devices and home appliances with nary a worry by us about it being out of control. But man does not control lightning. Some lightning seems almost benign. Perhaps it’s too distant to be more than a distraction. Or lightning repeatedly flashing brightly within high clouds but not striking the ground can be incredibly beautiful and fun to watch. But the National Weather Service (NWS) provides us with clear warnings that the bolts are among the top three weather-related killers of people. “Lightning is fascinating to watch but also extremely dangerous,” according to the NWS website. “In the United States, there are about 25 million lightning flashes every year. Each of those 25 million flashes is a potential killer.” I don’t know about you, but that won’t make me any more relaxed the next time I’m outdoors with lightning bolts coming straight down and lingering to pass massive electrical power into whatever it is striking. My closest call came just east of Platte City during a November quail hunt. It was autumn but warm weather mixed with cold produced a summer-like thunderstorm. Lightning came down every few minutes, sometimes even seconds. I was on one side of a ridge. My vehicle was on the other side, near the top. The crackle and boom from each bolt was immediate; there was no counting of seconds to determine miles. I was carrying a beloved and valuable steel shotgun that I could not make myself leave behind. I made the crossing, but sometimes you’re just lucky. A 2003 worldwide study found lightning causes 24,000 deaths and 240,000 injuries per year. We’re getting smarter and better protected in the United States. Lightning killed 23 people in the U.S. in 2013, according to NWS, compared to 340 in 1940. Lightning also causes house and barn fires, shatters and chars trees and kills cattle. There’s several ways a person can get hit or get the jolt from electrical current moving from a strike. Some survive; some don’t. I once wrote a news story about a couple whose car was hit by lightning on the highway, a surprise to me since I thought the rubber tires prevent strikes. Not necessarily, although the car body is a shield that can carry current around you. Did you know that lightning as it passes through air can heat the air to 50,000 degrees Fahrenheit, which according to NWS is about five times hotter than the surface of the sun? Toasty. NWS has other fascinating things about lightning on its website at http://www.lightningsafety.noaa.gov/science.htm. Included are a list of survivors, how they were struck and the injuries. Some recovered; others have lingering problems. One man reported increased psychic abilities. Most reported not-fun issues. Safety tips, houses with electrical systems and plumbing can protect you, but stay away from open windows, corded phones and power tools. If you’re outdoors, get to a vehicle or a building. Trees and picnic shelters are hazardous. And lightning will strike the same place twice, especially if it’s a high and pointed place. The chances any of us will get hit by lightning are slim, but when the wild thunderstorms send the forks of lightning downward, I feel terribly mortal and vulnerable.
Bill Graham, who lives in the Platte City area with his family, may be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.