How Dangerous Are Thunderstorms?

Lightning can be the most dangerous aspect of a thunderstorm. (Photo: NOAA Photo Library/Flickr).

Down here in South Florida, thunderstorms are a daily (sometimes even a few times daily) occurrence. Usually occurring in the late afternoon, thunderstorms afford me the perfect opportunity to curl up on the couch with a cup of hot tea and a good book. Even more enticing is a nap, which seems to be deeper and more satisfying when there’s a thunderstorm raging outside. (Alas, I have trouble convincing the preschoolers at home with me that a nap is the best use of the 4 o’clock hour ... but I digress.) The question here is what precautions you should take in the event of a big storm?

If you don’t take the necessary precautions, thunderstorms can be dangerous, mostly because they come with lightning. On average, lightning is the cause of 67 American deaths and more than 300 injuries every year. So it's helpful to have a review of thunderstorm do's and don'ts.

1. Take cover. If you’re outside in a thunderstorm, get indoors as soon as you can, preferably in a sturdy building, and not a rain shelter or stand-alone temporary structure (like a porta-potty or a shed, for example). These structures do not provide adequate protection from lightning. If you had planned an outdoor activity, postpone it until after the storm passes.

2. Pull over. If you’re driving, park at the closest safe spot (or exit, if you’re on the highway) and put on your flashers until the heavy rain stops. If you decide to keep driving, avoid touching any metal part of the car. If lightning strikes your car, it’ll act as a metal box that will prevent the electricity from getting to you, as long as you are not touching any metal on the car itself.

3. Avoid contact with electronics. Do not use appliances plugged into wall outlets. Unplug any electronic equipment such as your computer and TV before the storm hits. Lightning can cause an electrical surge that can damage these devices. I have firsthand experience with this one. We had our TV on during a recent storm; when the power went out, the TV went with it and hasn’t worked since. Cellphones and cordless phones are fine to use.

4. Stay out of the tub. You’ve heard the old wives' tale: Never take a bath or a shower in a thunderstorm or you could get electrocuted. Turns out this little myth is not a myth at all. Lightning can be carried through your plumbing and, if you’re in the water or touch a faucet, it can shock you. Better to wait until the storm passes to bathe, or even wash dishes, for that matter.

5. Avoid natural lightning rods. If you do happen to be stuck outside when a thunderstorm hits, don’t shelter under a large tree because trees act as natural lightning rods. If they are struck by lightning, branches can fall and injure you or worse. Stay away from lakes, ponds, railroad tracks and fences — all these things that can transfer electrical current to you if struck by lightning. Of course, also stay away from downed power lines.

A little bit of common sense goes a long way when it comes to staying safe in a thunderstorm. Your best bet is to stay indoors and take a nap or break out the board games. As Gary Allan sings, “Every storm runs out of rain.” That it does, Gary, that it does.