By Ginger Livingston
July 23, 2014
An East Carolina University professor who wrote the standards for lightning safety is urging people to take common-sense steps to avoid injury or death from lightning.
Katie Walsh Flanagan, a professor and director of athletics training education, led the team that 10 years ago wrote the first standards for lightning safety for athletics and recreation. She also led the group that updated the standards in a 2013 position statement for the National Athletics Trainers’ Association and wrote the National Collegiate Athletics Association’s lightning safety standards. High school athletics programs across the country also follow the standards she has written.
The rules are equally applicable to youth athletics programs and groups pursuing outdoor activities such as the Boy Scouts.
“We are in eastern North Carolina in the summer, and every day there is a chance of storms,” Flanagan said. “July is the consistent, number one month for people dying from lightning strikes.”
Fourteen people in the United States have been killed by lightning strikes since May, Flanagan said.
North Carolina ranks in the top six for lightning strikes, she said.
Flanagan’s research has examined where lightning will most likely occur and what weather conditions are favorable for strikes, how many people have been killed or injured by lightning, what they were doing when struck and what are the best methods for preventing injury or death from lightning strikes.
Most lightning strikes happen in mountainous area, along the Eastern Seaboard and the Mississippi and Ohio River valleys, Flanagan said. There is a lightning season from May to September that occurs from 4-8 p.m. on the Eastern Seaboard. It’s during that time period that most deaths and injuries occur, she said.
“Why is that? What are most of us on the Eastern Seaboard doing from 4 and 8? We are outside,” she said.
Preventing death or injury is simple enough.
“You have to be inside a substantial building, a place where people live or work,” she said. A screened porch or an open-air shelter like a dugout is not adequate, she said.
“The current thought for a lot of people is, if it is not raining, you are safe,” Flanagan said. “I saw a photograph in The Daily Reflector last year where a school baseball game was called off but the people were just standing under a sheltered walkway. They weren’t getting wet, but they could have still been struck.”
If a building isn’t available, a car, van, bus or any enclosed vehicle is also safe, she said.
Flanagan became somewhat famous, or some may say infamous, in 2012 when her order to evacuate Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium caused an almost 90-minute delay in ECU’s game against the University of Texas-El Paso. She ordered the evacuation when radar showed a thunderstorm eight miles from the stadium. Within 20 minutes, almost 50,000 had left the stadium.
“It’s not just knowing where there is a safe place to go but also knowing when is the time to vacate the field,” she said.
Organizations should identify lightning-safe locations and calculate how long it would take people to reach the location, factoring the additional time it takes to move groups of people, she said.
Flanagan began her work on lightning safety policies shortly after arriving at ECU in 1995.
She was searching for a research topic and wanted to explore the area of policy setting.
“In my office I have a poster of lightning striking Half Dome (mountain) in Yosemite, and I got an idea,” Flanagan said.
She surveyed colleges and universities to see what their policies were concerning lightning events during outdoor athletic, events.
“Nobody had one. They said, ‘Well, we will leave,’” she said.
Flanagan started working with doctors who studied lightning injuries and meteorologists who studied the conditions favorable for lightning. Patterns started emerging.
“The fatalities we’ve tracked have never been people dashing to their car,” she said. “They are the people who dashed outside to lock their car or who went back to get their mitt left on the field or the person who waited too late to get to safety.
“Most of them were already in a safe place and chose to go back outside too soon.”
Flanagan recommends people remaining inside until 30 minutes after the last strike of lightning is seen and the last sound of thunder is heard.
Flanagan and the researchers she’s worked with determined 42 reported lightning deaths occurred in the United States last year. At least 10 times as many people were injured by lightning strikes. It’s likely the death rate is higher because some lightning deaths may appear to be a heart attack or another cause, she said.
There is no national database for recording lightning deaths, Flanagan said.
There isn’t a weather warning system for lightning, but if individuals monitor local weather reports and see a storm coming, they should know lightning is likely accompanying it, and it’s best to get inside, she said.
“Lightning can strike from 10 miles away; that’s farther away than you can hear thunder,” she said.