SEBRING — In a state known as the lightning capital of the United States, misconceptions can be dangerous, according to the National Weather Service.
The ideas that lightning never strikes twice in the same place, there’s no risk if the sky is clear and that if there’s a delay between thunder and lightning people are safe are not true, according to the National Weather Service.
Knowing the truth about lightning is especially important in Florida, which has more lightning per square mile than in any state, said John Jensenius, a lightning expert for the National Weather Service.
Jensenius said Florida averages 22 lightning flashes per square mile. The reason for that is Florida has a lot of heat and humidity, an unstable atmosphere with warm air near surface moisture and sea breezes to stir that warm air and moisture.
The odds that anyone will be hit by lightning is about one in 12,000, he said. But people can reduce the chances of being a victim through taking precautions, Jensenius said.
In general, he said, the key to reducing the chance of being struck is to seek shelter as soon as possible. A car will work if the roof is solid metal, he added.
Running to a place of shelter is often the best choice, he said. The National Weather Services strongly advises against standing under a tree or laying on the ground, he said.
No one should be fooled by the fact that when they hear lightning, there’s a delay before the thunder, he said.
“If you hear thunder, you’re within striking distance of the lightning,” Jensenius said.
The furthest you can hear thunder is its 10 miles away and lightning can strike from that distance, he said.
A lightning strike may be fatal, but more often its not, Jensenius said.
The website, floridadisaster.org, says that between 1959 and 2003, Highlands County had five fatal lightning strikes. During that period, the Florida counties with the most fatalities were Miami-Dade, 32; Hillsborough, 32; Palm Beach, 27; Polk, 25; and Broward, 25, the website said.
Jensenius said that those who survive often have neurological problems that affect them for the rest of their lives.
In response to a Highlands Today inquiry on Facebook, Jennifer Martinez said lightning struck her when she was 11 years old and living in New Jersey at the time.
“I blacked out, only remember appearing at our back door unable to speak and the rest of that day I do not remember, possibly passed out,” she said.
Steve Marshburn Sr., who started a national support group for people struck by lightning, said he experienced that in 1969 on a clear day when he worked as bank vice president in North Carolina.
“It (the lightning) came through the speaker of a drive-through window,” he said.
Mashburn, who lives in Jacksonville, N.C., said he was helping out a drive-through teller who was overloaded with customers. He said the bolt traveled up his spine. He believes the long-term effects include that he doesn’t “think as well as I used to,” as well as several bouts with cancer.
Every day but Sunday he talks to people who were victims. Some are close to committing suicide, he said.
That was the way he felt, he said. “I was devastated,” he said, adding that an inability to hold a job and earn money to feed his family led to depression.
But, he said, he overcame it and believes as someone who experienced a lightning strike he is well suited to help others hit by lightning.
In Florida, many of people are struck by lightning while fishing or boating, Jensenius said. When boating during a storm, the only thing people can do is to get back to shore, he said.
And once back there, they should move away from the shore, he said.
In a house, he said, people should stay away from anything that has a cord, including regular telephones.
National Weather Service statistics show that lightning deaths dropped during the last six years. Jensenius attributes that to more awareness of what to do during a storm.
To reach the national support group for victims of a lightning strike, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.