Recent lightning deaths underscore how dangerous thunderstorms can be
Is the U.S. seeing a sudden surge in lightning fatalities? Here's how the recent flurry of deaths compares to previous years -- and why the danger of being killed by lightning depends on numerous factors.
Lightning is seen in the sky over the University of Kansas in Lawrence, Kansas, Thursday, March 26, 2020. Strong winds and hail are forecast for the area. (AP Photo/Orlin Wagner)
After nearly six months without a lightning-related fatality, the United States has seen a sudden uptick in deaths from lightning strikes over the last six weeks.
However, despite the recent increase, the country still remains far from the number of annual lightning deaths seen in decades past. From 1991 to 2001, the U.S. averaged 54 fatalities per year from lightning, according to John Jensenius, a lightning safety specialist with the Lightning Safety Council.
But that doesn't mean lightning deaths don't still occur as the last month and a half has demonstrated.
"Over time, that average has been gradually decreasing. And at the end of 2018, now that 10-year average is down to 27," Jensenius told AccuWeather.
This year, the U.S. went nearly half a year without a single lightning fatality. However, that streak abruptly came to an end over the past six weeks, during which 13 people were killed from strikes.
The first lightning-related death of the year occurred on June 22 in Pico Rivera, California, when a 52-year-old woman was walking her dogs on a path and lightning struck and killed her and the dogs. Less than two weeks later, another death occurred in Mountain City, Georgia, when a man was loading tools in his van at his residence and was struck by lightning.
Brooks Lambertson, 29, of Los Angeles was identified as the third victim of the Aug. 4 lightning strike in Washington, D.C., to die from injuries suffered in the incident.
By the Fourth of July holiday, four lightning deaths had already been recorded and by the end of the month, the total rose to eight. All victims were involved in an activity outside when they were struck. A 38-year-old man was piloting a remote-controlled aircraft in the middle of a field in Kentucky when he was fatally struck, and a 27-year-old man was doing some landscaping near a tree in Florida when he was struck and killed.
Jensenius emphasized that just being outside during a thunderstorm is dangerous. Lightning strikes this year have even claimed the lives of victims who tried to seek shelter. On Aug. 2, a 22-year-old man was camping in Wyoming when he was struck and killed by lightning while in his tent.
But experts said not all lightning is created equal, and there are multiple ways one can be a victim of a lightning strike without being directly hit, and those various types of strikes can result in cardiac arrest or serious injury such as damage to the neurological system.
The danger of a lightning strike depends on several factors, including where a person is when they are hit, the kind of object someone is holding or even the amount of water on the person's skin.
Lightning flashes above downtown buildings as a thunderstorm passes in the distance on June 11, 2022, in Kansas City, Missouri. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)
“It's such an overwhelming amount of energy that not all of it can go through the person. It's like taking a gallon bucket of water and in three seconds trying to pour it all through a straw,” said Jensenius.
And though rare, a lightning strike can kill or injure multiple victims at once. When lightning struck Lafayette Square in Washington, D.C., last week, it became the first multifatality lightning event since August 2020. It also marked the first time in more than 18 years that three people were killed in the same incident in the U.S.
"Prior to last week's incident near the White House, the most recent three-fatality incident was on June 27, 2004, when three people were struck and killed under trees at Bedford Dam State Park in Georgia," said Jensenius.
The blast killed a retired couple from Wisconsin and a 29-year-old banker from California. A fourth victim, a 28-year-old woman from California, was critically injured but was moved out of the ICU at a Washington-area hospital. That day also saw another lightning death to the north in Nottingham, Maryland, when a contractor was struck by lightning and subsequently died.
"This is the 13th lightning fatality of the year in the United States. Based on the past 10 years, the U.S. averages 16 lightning fatalities through August 4th. This is now the fifth lightning death in August which averages a total of five deaths for the entire month," explained Jensenius.
Jensenius stressed that these incidents should be a reminder for people to get to a safe place any time there is a thunderstorm in the area.
"Even a distant rumble of thunder should serve as a warning to get inside a substantial building or hard-topped metal [vehicle] immediately," he warned.
The overall risk of being struck by lightning, however, is very low, with odds of 1 in 15,300 of being hit in your lifetime (defined as 80 years), according to the National Weather Service. And everyone can keep that risk low by remaining vigilant and taking proper safety precautions when lightning is a risk.
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