How to stay safe from lightning strikes

Lightning
Lightning served as a backdrop to flags at a Kansas cemetery, Thursday, June 4, 2015.
Charlie Riedel | AP file

Lightning strikes are serious business.

Three Minnesotans were recently injured in two separate lightning strikes in St. Louis County.

Lightning strikes have killed nine people and injured 61 in Minnesota since 1996. Nationally, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reports 14 deaths from lightning strikes so far this year.

Carol Christenson, a warning coordination meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Duluth, offered practical tips for how to stay safe during thunderstorms. She also dispelled a few myths about lightning.

What's the biggest danger posed by lightning?

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The biggest threat of a lightning strike on the human body is cardiac arrest. When someone does get struck by lightning, it's very important to begin CPR. The victim does not carry a charge, so they can be touched, and should be touched right away to administer first aid.

How do you know how much of a threat lightning is going to be in a storm?

We can't really tell how intense a particular lightning strike is. What we do at the National Weather Service is we forecast thunderstorms and then we let people know where thunderstorms are, where they're heading and who is in danger.

What makes someone more likely to be struck by lightning?

Anyone out in the open is in danger of being struck by lightning. Baseball fields, golf courses, on the water and along hiking trails are open areas. Lightning will be attracted to the tallest object in an open area.

Is it true that a person shouldn't lie on the ground?

The point is to get some place safe as fast as you can. A building with four walls around you is a good choice. Picnic shelters and open garages are not safe. You need four walls. We don't recommend you to totally lay flat because lightning can strike anywhere around you and then travel through the ground.

Why is that?

Because lightning can come from any direction. You're much safer in an enclosed building. Hard-topped vehicles are good places to be too because the metal around you will divert the lightning energy into the ground.

There's an old wives' tale that the rubber tires of the vehicle are actually protecting you, but they're not. It's actually the metal frame of the vehicle.

Will rubber protect you?

No. It's not good enough to have a pair of tennis shoes on with rubber soles. That little bit of rubber is not enough to protect you from the intensity of a lightning strike.

If you are stuck outdoors, and you've got no place to go — no building, no vehicle to go into — the next best thing is go to a lower area. Avoid tall objects, like the tallest tree or light poles because they will also attract lightning. If you're under them or near them, you have a good chance of being affected by that lightning strike.

If it's raining and thundering and lightning, don't stand under the nearest tree to stay dry. Get to shelter if you can.

In a hypothetical scenario, if you are outside during a thunderstorm, how could you manage to avoid being the tallest object in a space without being near a taller object?

That's a hard choice to make. If you have no place else to go, get to the lowest spot available. If it's a ditch or any kind of low spot, that's where you should go.

The important thing is, try not to put yourself in that situation to begin with. If you're heading outdoors for a hike, a walk, a ballgame, where you're going to be away from shelter, check the weather. If there are thunderstorms in the forecast, you might want to postpone your outing.