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COLUMN: STORM SAVVY: Tips for staying safe during severe weather

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By Bryce Roberts

Did you ever wonder why we have more thunderstorms during the spring and summer? It’s because weather patterns are more active as they move through Kentucky during these seasons, especially in the afternoon and evening.  The weather conditions also increase the potential for lightning to strike people at work or play outdoors and possibly while they’re inside a building.  Although thunderstorms are more common during the spring and summer, they can take place all year long and at all hours.
All thunderstorms produce lightning.  Sometimes called “nature’s fireworks,” lightning is produced by the buildup and discharge of electrical energy between negatively and positively charged areas.  An average lightning charge can provide enough energy to keep a 100-watt light bulb burning for more than three months.
Other dangers associated with thunderstorms are heavy rains that lead to flash floods, strong winds, hail and tornadoes. These weather conditions can injure or kill people and pets, as well as cause billions of dollars in crop and property damage.
Thunder results from a shock wave caused by rapid heating and cooling of air near the lightning channel.
Do you know how to estimate the miles between yourself and a lightning flash? Simply count seconds between lightning and thunder and divide this time by five.  Sound travels about a mile every five seconds. So if you count 30 seconds between lightning and thunder, lightning has flashed within 6 miles of you.  This puts you within lightning striking distance, according to scientific research.
What is the most important thunderstorm safety precaution?
Be aware of an approaching thunderstorm and move to a safe shelter before the storm arrives in your area.  If you see lightning, hear thunder, observe dark clouds or your hair stands on end, immediately go inside a sturdy, completely enclosed building, home or a hard-top vehicle with closed windows.  Avoid picnic shelters, sports dugouts, covered patios, carports and open garages.  Small wooden, vinyl or metal sheds provide little if any protection.
Since metal conducts lightning, don’t touch metal inside or outdoors; drop metal backpacks; release golf clubs, tennis rackets, fishing gear and tools, and get off bicycles and motorcycles.
Lightning can strike water and travel a long distance in it.  So standing in water, even in rubber boots, isn’t safe during a thunderstorm; neither are swimming, wading, snorkeling and scuba diving.  If you’re in a small boat during a storm, crouch in the middle and stay away from metal substances.
Crouch down in an open, exposed area and stay away from tall objects, such as trees.  Remember to stay away from clotheslines, fences, exposed sheds and other elevated items that can conduct lightning.
If you’re indoors, remember lightning can enter buildings as a direct strike, through pipes and wires extending outside or through the ground.  Telephone use is a leading cause of indoor lightning injuries in America because the charges can travel a long way in telephone and electrical wires, especially in rural areas.  
Windows and doors provide a direct path for lightning to enter a building; so avoid them.  During a thunderstorm, stay away from laundry appliances because they are connected to plumbing and electrical systems.  Dryer vents offer a direct electrical pathway outdoors.
Remember pet safety.  Lightning can easily strike animals chained to a tree or wire runner.  Doghouses generally aren’t protected against lightning strikes.
Feel free to contact me at your Spencer County Cooperative Extension Service at 477-2217 or you can email me at broberts@uky.edu.  You can visit the Spencer County Extension Services’ website at www.spencerextension.com.
Educational programs of the Kentucky Cooperative Extension Service serve all people regardless of race, color, age, sex, religion, disability, or national origin.