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What we can learn from 13 years of lightning fatalities

By Adriana Navarro, AccuWeather staff writer

Since establishing National Lightning Safety Awareness Week in 2001, the number of lightning fatalities have halved, according to the now-retired National Weather Service lightning safety specialist John Jensenius.

"Between 1991 and 2001, the average was 54 fatalities in the United States (each year)," Jensenius said, highlighting one major key learning from having studied decades of data. "Over time, that average has been gradually decreasing. And at the end of last year, now that 10-year average is down to 27."

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Driven by recognizing a lot of people "were being killed unnecessarily" through not understanding the threat that lightning presented, Jensenius helped to found the National Lightning Safety Awareness Week in 2001. Later in 2006, he created a database of lightning fatalities, which notes the activities the victims were taking part in at the time of the fatal strike as well as their locations, genders and ages.

"A lot of it comes down to documenting the fatalities, looking at the data and learning from it. And then once you've learned something from that data, of course, the other very important part is to get that information out to the public," Jensenius said.

Lightning striking

Lightning fills the sky in a rare thunderstorm in San Francisco on September 11, 2017. The cool marine layer and the city's famous fog rarely allow such displays. (UPI / Terry Schmitt)

Looking at the data, Jensenius realized that many of the victims probably hadn't realized they were in danger until it was too late. Despite the booming thunder in the distance, people continued to work or play outdoors.

"The threat (of being struck by lightning) arrived when the thunderstorm was within 10 miles," Jensenius said. Hence the saying, "When thunder roars, go indoors."

Of the 400 lightning fatalities logged between 2006 and 2019, 40 of the victims had been out fishing, like Brendan McGowan and Kaitlyn Rosensteel, who were killed by a lightning strike at Mammoth Park Lake in Mount Pleasant, Pennsylvania, earlier this month. Both of them were 18 years old.

There were another 20 lightning deaths that occurred while camping, the data showed, including Robert Klemme, who had been camping in Junction, Texas, with his family when a storm began to brew. According to a local news source, the family had known the storm was coming and decided to take shelter. Klemme was the first lightning fatality in 2019. He was 48.

Motorcyclist Benjamin Austin Lee was struck while sitting in traffic on June 9, 2019, four days prior to the deaths of McGowan and Rosensteel. Including Lee, there have been 17 deaths from 2006 to 2019 that include someone riding a bike, motorcycle or ATV.

Helmet lightning strike promo

A motorcyclist's helmet after he was killed by a direct lightning strike in June 2019. The foam in his helmet disintegrated and burns disfigured the top of his helmet. A Florida homicide investigator with 20 years of experience said he'd never seen anything like it. (Florida Highway Patrol)

According to the 1959 to 2017 data from the NWS on lightning fatalities, there were 498 lightning fatalities in Florida alone, earning the state the dubious title of the number one state for lightning fatalities for the time span. However, when weighing fatalities by population of each state, Wyoming came in first with 1.19 deaths per million people.

The Lightning Safety Council will be covering National Lightning Safety Awareness Week, spreading information on topics from the science of lightning and thunder, to how to stay safe indoors, outdoors and how to protect your home from lightning. Catch their tips at #LightningSafety on Twitter.

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