My mom always told me not to shower during a thunderstorm. And, because we had phones with cords, she told me to switch to the cordless during a storm as well. Better yet, just get off the phone. But as I’ve aged, I’ve thought that some of these things I grew up hearing were silly. You can wash your hands and take a shower during a thunderstorm, right? Well, according to the National Weather Service (NWS) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Mom was right back then, and she’s still right.
Today, we’re digging a bit into the science behind thunder and lightning, and sharing 10 CDC-approved rules for thunderstorm safety. (Mom would approve, too.)
Click HERE to skip straight to the 10 essential rules!
Lightning is a funny thing. I remember a neighbor who stepped away from the stovetop to look out the window during a storm. Lightning hit her house, and when she went back to the stove, there was a hole in her pot — the one she’d just been holding — from the lightning.
Another time, I was standing on our front porch watching the storm, and lightning struck right next to the porch. It was so close and so loud that we screamed and ran inside. Even with a whole-house surge protector, several of our electronics were destroyed.
Historically, the Southern United States has the most lightning strikes in the country, with the coast from Louisiana to Florida being the most at risk. As a publication with an emphasis on the South, it’s good to brush up on ways to stay safe.
What exactly is thunder, anyway? And why is it a sign of danger?
You likely know the answer, but bear with me for a moment. According to the National Weather Service, “Thunder is the sound caused by a nearby flash of lightning and can be heard for a distance of only about 10 miles from the lightning strike. The sound of thunder should serve as a warning to anyone outside that they are within striking distance of the storm and need to get to a safe place immediately!”
They go on to say, “Thunder is created when lightning passes through the air. The lightning discharge heats the air rapidly and causes it to expand. The temperature of the air in the lightning channel may reach as high as 50,000 degrees Fahrenheit, five times hotter than the surface of the sun. Immediately after the flash, the air cools and contracts quickly. This rapid expansion and contraction create the sound wave that we hear as thunder.”
As another reminder for guesstimating how close lightning is to where you are, the National Weather Service also says, “… it takes the sound of thunder about five seconds to travel a mile … If you count the number of seconds between the flash of lightning and the sound of thunder, and then divide by five, you’ll get the distance in miles to the lightning: 5 seconds = 1 mile, 15 seconds = 3 miles, 0 seconds = very close … Remember, if you can hear thunder, chances are that you’re within striking distance of the storm. You don’t want to get struck by the next flash of lightning.”
So, now that you know how close the storm is, what are things you should NOT do during the storm to stay safe? Turns out, there’s kinda a lot of them.
10 Things You Should Do (and Not Do!) During a Thunderstorm:
- Run for cover! Don’t dilly-dally outside when the thunder rolls in. Seek shelter ASAP, ideally in a car or a building. What about those cute little picnic shelters or garden sheds? Sorry, but no.
- Beware of wide-open spaces: You might love a sweeping vista on a sunny day, but it’s a definite no-no in a thunderstorm. Trust us, being the tallest object in the vicinity isn’t a contest you want to win.
- Don’t lie down: But what if you are caught in that wide-open space? If you just lie down, you’re no longer the tallest object for that lightning to find, right? Think again: If you’re stuck outside without shelter, do not lie flat. Instead, play a game of “tiny tortoise.” Crouch low, tuck in your head, cover your ears, and touch your heels together. Smaller is safer!
- Trees are NOT your friend: They might look sturdy, but trees and lightning are a dangerous combo. A lightning-struck tree can burst like a firecracker. You don’t want any part of that.
- Unplug the electronics: It’s the perfect time to disconnect and enjoy an old-fashioned book. Whether it’s your phone, computer, or television, if it’s plugged in, it could serve up a shocking surprise. Again, whole-house surge protectors help, but direct lightning hits are so powerful they can overwhelm a typical surge protector.
- Water and electricity don’t mix: Get out of the pool and off the water. Water conducts electricity far too well to want to be any part of this combo.
- Shut the windows and doors: Keep those windows and doors securely shut. They’re not just a pathway for gusty winds — lightning can flash in or even charge up your window glass ’til it shatters.
- No umbrellas: I know This one is hard, but using an umbrella during a thunderstorm isn’t a great idea. The metal tip on your umbrella might look harmless, but it’s just the kind of conductor that lightning loves. You might as well wave a sign saying, “Hey, lightning, over here!”
- Hold off on the shower: It might be tempting to wash off a long day with a hot shower or bath, but hold that thought. Plumbing can become a lightning highway right into your home. Best to stay dry and safe until the storm passes.
- A little space, please: If you’re with your pals and stuck outside, spread out. This is the rare case when sticking together isn’t the best plan. One lightning strike can injure a whole group. Spreading out ensures that if a strike happens, others can help.
The Big Takeaways to Stay Safe in a Thunderstorm
While all of that can seem a little overwhelming, here are the major things to remember: The safest action during a thunderstorm is to get inside a substantial building or hard-topped metal vehicle and avoid open areas, any areas near tall, isolated objects or trees, or near water.
Stay safe out there!
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