Sonia Chavez was photographing a rainstorm with her phone when lightning struck her, blinding her with heat and sending her flying off her feet. She was standing on the balcony of her midrise Dallas condo when the unexpected occurred.
She suffered eye damage and some mobility, cognitive, and communication problems as a result of the lightning strike that Chavez documented on camera.
But she managed to live.
Chavez, 38, claims that the impact sounded like a bomb going off. “I experienced a powerful electric impulse that felt like a gut punch or whiplash and impacted me hard. It caused more pain than you could ever fathom. I recall feeling a tingling sensation in my ears and noticing changing hues — blue, crimson, and then white — as electricity discharged from my palms.
I can’t recall much that happened after that, but the next thing I know, I was poking and rubbing myself to see whether I was still alive in my apartment’s closet.
Chavez is among the fortunate ones, despite how horrifying the experience was. She survived the hit 18 months ago, but she is still recovering from the traumas she sustained.
Many other lightning-struck people don’t. And lightning-related deaths are increasing in the United States, probably as a result of an uptick in severe storms linked to climate change.
According to the National Weather Service, there have been 17 fatal lightning incidents in the United States so far this year (NWS). That’s more than the 11 that had already happened at this point in the previous year and more than all of 2020 combined.
Chavez, who is undergoing physical and speech therapy as well as continuous therapies to address her eyesight loss from the strike, adds, “I do feel like I’ve been lucky.” Teams of people have come to my assistance, including my husband, who discovered me in the closet a half-hour after the incident and took me to the hospital.
According to National Weather Service lightning specialist Aaron Treadway, survivors of lightning strikes like Chavez are more common than you might imagine. In fact, 90% of lightning strike victims make it through the ordeal.
According to Treadway, 300 people are typically struck by lightning each year, with about 10% of those injuries being fatal. Many people who are hit but survive suffer major injuries.
Although lightning-related deaths have increased recently, he notes that they are still significantly lower than they were 20 years ago. According to National Weather Service data, the average annual number of lightning-related deaths between 1970 and 2000 was above 70.
According to Treadway, “the effectiveness of the lightning safety campaign to which many people and organisations have contributed is the reason why fatalities [since 2000] have decreased.” These include the numerous NWS offices across the nation, the broadcast and print media, outdoor and sports associations, emergency management officials, and other safety organisations.
For our deaf and hard-of-hearing community, sayings like “When Thunder Roars, Go Indoors” or “See a Flash, Dash Inside” are simple to remember and use, keeping people safe.
Lightning Strikes: The Statistics
In-depth information about lightning strikes is available on the National Weather Service’s website, which also offers a compelling overview of how, when, and where individuals are killed during thunderstorms.
It gives an insight into the types of activities people were involved in at the time of fatal collisions, offering important information about how to best avoid risky behaviours during a storm.
In the case of the 17 lightning-related fatalities thus far this year:
- Five accidents occurred while people were camping or visiting public parks.
- Four people lost their lives while boating, jet skiing, or swimming.
- They were doing yard work, putting tools in a van, standing on a roof, and fixing windows when they were struck.
- Four people lost their lives while exercising the Army, strolling their dogs, operating a remote-control plane in a field, and repairing a truck on a highway.
A remarkable online database of lightning survivors, including in-depth interviews, their testimonies, and the health effects they experienced, has also been assembled by the National Weather Service.
Beyond these individual accounts, the National Weather Service has made available a lot of knowledge on these enormous electrical sparks in the atmosphere that frequently strike the ground.
The National Weather Service and other federal organisations claim:
- About 300 million volts are present in a typical lightning flash. A domestic current has 120 volts in comparison.
- Lightning has the ability to heat the air it strikes by 50,000 degrees Fahrenheit. That is five times as hot as the sun’s surface.
- On average, lightning hits someplace in the United States 25 million times a year.
- According to flashes per square mile, Florida is the state with the highest average number of cloud-to-ground strikes in the US. Due to the frequency of lightning and the fact that most people are outdoors during the peak lightning season, the Sunshine State also has the highest number of fatalities of any state (June to August).
- In an average year, Florida experiences 1.2 million strikes, spanning 20 square miles. Louisiana (875,136, 18.9 miles), Mississippi (768,126, 16.1 miles), Oklahoma (plus 1.1 million, 15.8 miles), and Arkansas are following (837,978, 15.7 miles).
- The U.S. had the second-highest number of lightning strikes globally in 2021. The first was Brazil.
- According to the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration, some professions have a higher chance of being struck by lightning, including those in the logging, construction, utilities, lawn services, and recreational industries.
Officials from the National Weather Service have also compiled a startling list of lightning myths and facts. As follows:
- You won’t minimise your danger of being struck by lightning by crouching down or lying flat on the ground during a thunderstorm. Still susceptible to ground current from adjacent 2 lightning strikes on the earth. It is preferable to flee to a structure or moving vehicle for safety.
- Lightning can hit the same area twice, and it frequently does. In a typical year, the Empire State Building is struck 23 times.
- Due to the fact that lightning can strike up to 15 miles from a storm’s core, it is possible to be struck by a “bolt from the blue” even if it is not raining outdoors.
- Lightning DOES NOT ATTRACT TO METAL: watches, jewellery, and personal electronics like cellphones and MP3 players.
- Don’t stand under a tree during a storm, as your mother said. The second most common reason for lightning fatalities is being under a tree during a storm.
What Can You Do If Fatalities Are Up and Why?
What’s behind the current rise in lightning strikes that are fatal? Treadway claims that there may be a connection between the two. He does, however, point out that scientists aren’t quite confident, in part because they haven’t been monitoring the weather event for very long.
The era of record of ground-based lightning detection is quite brief, he says, “even if a warming climate will produce more elements that are favourable to the genesis of thunderstorms.” Scientists need more data over a longer time span to draw those kinds of findings, according to the statement, “in order to establish that there is a major increase in lightning coverage.”
However, studies have indicated that raising people’s knowledge of the risks can help lower the overall number of lightning-related deaths.
He claims that lightning “does not obey laws; it strikes where it wants to.” The general people is responsible for taking those safety measures and lowering their overall risk of being struck.
To lessen your danger during an electrical storm, National Weather Service officials advise remembering the following safety advice and information:
- Thunder signals the presence of lightning, so you should seek cover inside a hard-topped structure or a car with the windows rolled up.
- When you hear the final thunderclap, wait 30 minutes before venturing outside.
- During a storm, avoid using landlines, laptops, and other electrical devices that place you in close proximity to electricity.
- Stay away from plumbing, such as faucets, sinks, and bathtubs.
- Avoid going near windows and doors, and don’t go up on balconies or patios.
- Leaning or lying against concrete walls is not recommended.
- If you’re stranded outside and unable to find cover, stay away from elevated terrain such as hills, mountain ridges, and peaks.
- Avoid lying flat on the ground and stay away from trees and other electrically conductive items (like metal or wire fences, power lines, and windmills).
- Avoid swimming in or going near ponds, lakes, or other water areas.
Before participating in outdoor summer activities, Treadway advises checking the weather prediction and modifying your plans as necessary.
About two-thirds of the victims were taking part in outdoor leisure activities before to being hit, with water sports coming in first place, he adds. The most fatal water-related activities were boating and beach activities, with fishing coming in second and third, respectively.
“Among the top activities people were engaged in when fatally struck were camping, ranching/farming, and riding an uncovered vehicle (bike/motorcycle). Soccer took the top spot among the sports, followed by golf and running. It’s interesting that men account for around 80% of lightning deaths.
Looking back on her experiences, Chavez claims she was aware of the danger she was putting herself in by shooting the electrical storm while standing on her balcony the day she was struck by lightning. She recognises that she previously had the perilous misconception that she was not in danger because it was not raining outdoors.
She is still getting better.
She admits that she is still developing and that she has movement and eyesight issues. She expresses her experiences clearly but slowly and deliberately.
But according to Chavez, she is gradually regaining her talents every day. She recently started working as a project manager again, and she has even resumed running, which she had to stop doing after the strike.
She attributes one unexpected development to the lightning strike: the experience changed her perspective on life and made her mind calmer and less “brain noise” than before.
She says, “I honestly feel very privileged through this trip. “A near-death experience completely alters your perspective on life. And even though this wrecked havoc on my body and psyche, it was beneficial to my soul.
“I can only focus on the present now, so the brain chatter I used to encounter is gone. And that seems so pleasant to me. A few other survivors will tell you that they have experienced similar occurrences after you enter this new place.
Chavez also claims that she is motivated to share her experience because she thinks it would save others from going through what she did as well as those who have survived lightning strikes.
In terms of what happens to those who have been affected by a lightning strike and by electrical shock in general, she asserts that there has to be greater education. It’s not as uncommon as you might believe; many of us have similar experiences, and they do disrupt our brains and nervous systems.
“I want to contribute as much as I can to raising awareness in the hopes that it may benefit someone else.”