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State’s reputation as lightning capital well-deserved

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Published:   |   Updated: July 6, 2014 at 12:58 PM

Fifteen-year-old Ethan “E.J.” Eldridge never knew what hit him.

“It’s hard to exactly remember,” he said. “All I know is for a second I was falling forward, and the next second I was waking up on the bow of the boat.”

In between was blackness, 45 minutes of it.

Eldridge and fishing buddy Joe Baker were casting for reds in a creek off the Intracoastal Waterway near St. Augustine last year when they spotted a storm approaching from the south. They weighed anchor, stowed the fishing gear and headed north away from the black thunderhead, Eldridge said, cranking the outboard motor to outrun the storm.

“We hadn’t even gone a mile, going full speed,” he said, “when the lightning came down.”

Both fishermen were knocked unconscious. The teenager awoke in a pool of his blood; he had cut his chin and eyebrow in the fall.

Baker fared worse, Eldridge recounted this week in a telephone interview from his home in St. Augustine. His fishing partner was writhing in seizures.

“I don’t know how long he was doing that,” Eldridge said. He helped get Baker upright and calmed him down before calling for help. Baker spent the night in a hospital.

Later, they examined the boat and decided the bolt came in through the side and hit Baker.

“He had a scar coming up from his leg to his body,” Eldridge said. “It came right up through him.”

The pair were among the 49 people injured in lightning strikes in the United States last year and nearly became the fifth and sixth killed in Florida in 2013. Their story also serves as a warning for others as the summer storm season begins in the so-called Sunshine State.

Florida traditionally is the deadliest state in the country for lightning strikes, and 2014 is no exception. Florida currently leads the nation in people fatally struck so far this year, with four deaths — the same number as have died in the rest of the United States, according to the National Weather Service.

That number is the same as died from lightning strikes in Florida in all of 2013, but this year appears to be an anomaly. Overall, fatalities caused by lightning appear to be on the downswing in the past few years.

Summer is the peak season for lightning, though people are struck year-round. In the United States over the past 30 years, an average of 51 people were killed each year by lightning, and hundreds more suffered severe injuries. The National Weather Service says that over the 10-year period ending in 2012, an average of 35 lightning-strike victims died each year in the United States.

Between 1990 and 2003, Florida topped the nation in lightning deaths with 129, according to the National Lightning Safety Institute. Second place went to Texas, with 52 deaths during that period.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says the number of fatalities is dropping at a steady rate. In 2012, there were 28 people struck and killed, compared with 23 — a record low — fatally struck last year.

Theories about why there are fewer fatal lightning strikes are split. Some credit prevailing weather patterns; others say people have become smarter about keeping out of harm’s way.

“Last year the numbers certainly were down,” said John Jensenius, the National Weather Service’s lightning guru, who studies the phenomenon from his office in Portland, Maine. “One reason was the drought in the Southeast and in areas that typically have a lot of lightning.”

The falling number of strikes, he said, “has more to do with drought than anything else.

“Certainly if there is less lightning,” he said, “the less likely it is for somebody to be struck. But overall, fewer casualties are the result of awareness. Awareness is a large part of the equation. One of the reasons for the continued drop in fatal lightning strikes is that people are more concerned and are taking actions to protect themselves.”

The trend could just as easily and quickly reverse itself, Jensenius said.

“It varies from year to year,” he said. “I would expect that once the Southeast gets into a more normal yearly rainfall, we will see the lightning strikes go up.”

Weather Service meteorologists say Florida leads the nation with an average of 1.45 million lightning strikes a year. That calculates to just over 25 strikes a square mile in a state where summers feature a never-ending battle between sea breezes resulting in thunderheads brimming with lightning.

“The reason we get so many thunderstorms in Florida is that the state is a long piece of land with warm water on both sides,” said Joe Dwyer, professor of physics and space sciences with the Florida Institute of Technology in Melbourne. “During the summer, the sun warms the peninsula, and that brings sea breezes. The moist air collides, and that causes updrafts, and that leads to thunderstorms.

“There’s a lot of energy in humid air,” he said. “And thunderstorms are a way of releasing that energy.”

That there have been fewer lightning-strike fatalities in recent years, Dwyer said, is more a result of awareness of the dangers of lightning than fewer strikes.

“I don’t think there are fewer lightning strikes,” he said. “There is no evidence of any long-term changes in lightning. A more likely explanation is that fewer people are doing outdoor activities. If you want to be struck by lightning, it helps to be outside. There are fewer people doing outdoor activities that may put them in danger.

“The logical explanation,” Dwyer said, “is the change in people’s behavior. A lot of effort goes into making people aware of the dangers of lightning. It makes a big difference, especially in Florida.”

Aside from being deadly, lightning causes millions in property damage each year, though those numbers are sliding as well.

Insurance claims for damage caused by lightning across the nation reached a record high in 2008, with insurance companies paying out more than $1 billion in lightning damage claims, according to insurance industry statistics.

That year, there were 246,200 claims that averaged more than $4,000 each.

Last year, insurance paid $673 million on 114,740 claims, averaging nearly $5,900 each, which represented the lowest level in a decade because of a lull in thunderstorms across the nation, the Insurance Information Institute says on its website.

Since 2004, the institute said, the number of paid lightning claims fell nearly 60 percent through the end of 2013. Insurers say the decline likely is because of an increased use of lightning protection systems, technological advances and awareness of lightning safety as well as fewer lightning storms.

The Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety has this tip: Install a good surge protection system. Electrical surge protectors guard against power spikes that can disrupt utility service and fry appliances and electronics.

Protecting property is one thing, keeping life and limb safe is another, said Jensenius, who stressed getting indoors at the slightest hint of thunder.

If you can hear thunder, he said, you should head inside. A lightning strike can pop as far as 10 miles from a thunderstorm.

“The biggest problem in terms of fatalities is that people wait far too long before getting inside,” he said, “and that puts them in dangerous and deadly situations.”

The eight people fatally struck in Florida since January 2013 were engaged in a variety of activities when they were hit, according to the National Weather Service. One was climbing down scaffolding, another was repairing a roof, one was walking and another picking blueberries. Two were fishing, including a 71-year-old man on the shore of a Plant City lake in May.

“Fishing is the No. 1 activity that puts people in danger,” Jensenius said. “That’s where we see the most fatals. People who are out fishing on a boat, it takes time to get to safety. They have to allow for that amount of time.”

Eldridge, the teen struck while fishing in St. Augustine, said the near-death incident hasn’t kept him from angling for reds.

“I’m back at it,” he said. “But, oh yeah, I’m very cautious now.”

 

kmorelli@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7760

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