Florida remains lightning leader of the nation
By Joe Callahan Staff writer
It was 12:25 p.m., the day before Easter 2005, when Florida Highway Patrol Cpl. Tony DeWeese stopped along Interstate 75 to investigate a minor car accident in the rain.
DeWeese had just handed over a traffic citation. He was standing beside a vehicle parked in the southbound median just north of County Road 318.
As the driver asked what telephone number he could call to pay the ticket, a lightning bolt struck DeWeese in the left shoulder.
The bolt, which left an eraser-size entrance mark, scalded his shoulder and exited his feet in 11 places.
DeWeese was thrown 8 feet into the median. Witnesses later told him that he was unresponsive, with steam coming from his body.
“They thought I was burning,” DeWeese recalled last week. “I was super-heated. I was lying in the water and the steam was due to the heat from the lightning.”
DeWeese was rushed to UF Health Shands Hospital at the University of Florida in Gainesville, where he spent a couple of weeks in intensive care. Doctors determined he did not sustain any damage to his heart or kidneys.
For weeks, he underwent many skin grafts, especially around his left heel. That was the worst of those exit wounds.
“It took five weeks before I could wear shoes again and get back on the road,” said DeWeese, who is now a sergeant with the FHP in Jacksonville.
DeWeese, now 49, says God intervened that day. He knows he should have died. Despite the ordeal, he still has a sense of humor about what happened.
“The name of the driver I gave the citation to that day was Caleb Sparks,” he said with a chuckle. Sparks was also injured by the heat of the lightning strike near his driver’s door, DeWeese said.
DeWeese is one of hundreds of people who are injured or killed by lightning each year across the United States.
Since 1940, more than 9,200 people nationwide have been killed by lightning. Nearly 500 have been killed in Florida since 1959.
From 2003 to 2014, there have been 62 lightning deaths in Florida, more than the next two states — Texas (27) and Colorado (26) — combined.
The good news is the number of annual deaths has declined significantly in 75 years. Some experts credit public awareness and advancing technology for the decline.
From 1940 to 1949, there were 3,249 deaths. That’s more than one-third of all the deaths reported since 1940.
Each decade the number of deaths has declined: 1950-59, 1,841; 1960-69, 1,332; 1970-79, 978; 1980-89, 726; 1990-99, 569; 2000-09, 413; and 2010-14, 132.
The average annual number of lightning deaths has declined from about 324 in the 1940s to about 26 in the past five years.
John Jensenius, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Maine, conducted a 2013 national study of lightning deaths. Though he believes public awareness and improved technology have played a role in the decline, times were much different in the 1940s and 1950s.
“Back then, a lot more people sitting on tractors were getting hit and people used corded phones and that led to more indoor fatalities,” Jensenius noted.
Each year, Florida has more lightning strikes per square mile on average than any other place in North America.
Florida leads the way because it is surrounded by water. During hot summer afternoons, the land warms up faster than the water. That combination produces Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico sea breezes.
These breezes force moist, warm air up from the surface until it meets the colder, drier atmosphere.
When the breezes collide along the Interstate 75 corridor, they often form severe, lightning-packed thunderstorms.
A strip across Central Florida, from Tampa to Titusville, is considered the lightning capital of North America.
Known as “Lightning Alley,” there are about 150 lightning flashes per square mile annually, with 50 or so striking each square mile.
The state of Florida, on average, gets hit about 25 times per square mile annually, nearly four times the United States’ average of 6.6 strikes per square mile.
Martin Uman, co-director of the University of Florida’s International Center for Lightning Research and Testing, is considered one of the world’s leading lightning experts.
Uman earned his bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees in electrical engineering from Princeton University. Among many accomplishments, Uman is best known for his work in lightning modeling: the application of electromagnetic field theory to the description of various lightning processes.
Uman, who has been the director of UF Lightning Research Laboratory since 1972, helped launch the testing center at Camp Blanding in 1996. The center is where students conduct triggered lightning experiments to determine how attached objects are affected.
Students shoot rockets with a trailing wire attached to objects, such as like appliances or other items, into lightning storms to trigger a strike.
Lightning causes at least $2 billion in damage annually across the country, though some estimates have topped $5 billion, according to the The Lightning Safety Institute.
Uman, who has written five books on the subject, said research has given more insight into how lightning operates.
“In terms of lightning protection, advancement has been zero,” Uman said. “We’ve stayed basically the same since Benjamin Franklin (who invented the lightning rod.)”
But Uman noted that advancement in lightning warning systems has been one factor that may have helped reduce lightning deaths.
Today, lightning detection devices allow officials on golf courses, and at baseball, football and soccer games, to halt play until the lightning is more than 10 miles away.
Though many people hear that a golf course is the most dangerous place during a lightning storm, Jensenius noted it is only the 10th most dangerous activity during a lightning storm.
Jensenius’ research found that fishermen are three times more likely than golfers to be killed by lightning.
Jensenius, who looked at all lightning deaths from 2006 to 2013, said the research revealed the deadliest activities from lightning: fishing, 30 deaths; camping, 16; boating and farming and ranching, 14 each; beach, 13; and soccer, 12.
Jensenius reported that one contributing factor to these lightning deaths is that people are unwilling to postpone outdoor activities.
The study also revealed that loud activities often block out the noise of an approaching storm, and many people do not evacuate soon enough and are struck while trying to take cover.
As Lightning Awareness Week approaches — it’s June 21-27 this year — state and local officials urge everyone to be cautious. “When thunder roars, go indoors” is the motto that weather officials use.
Marion sheriff’s Lt. Chip Wildy, the county’s emergency management director, said one big myth is that a person is safe as soon as a storm passes.
There have been cases when people have been killed on a sunny day.
Lightning can travel more than 10 miles and often does strike along “the peripheral of a storm” after the sun comes out, Wildy said.
The University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences released several facts about lightning:
Lightning is five times hotter than the surface of the sun.
There can be as many as 500 cloud-to-cloud strikes within a 45-minute storm.
The average flash could light a 100-watt light bulb for more than three months.
One myth is determining how far lightning is away from you. Most people believe it is one mile for every second a person counts between a lightning flash and when it makes a sound.
Actually, every five seconds between the flash and the strike is one mile. Sound travels by about one-fifth of a mile per second.
The lightning capital of the world is far from Florida. That distinction goes to the Democratic Republic of the Congo in Central Africa, which annually has 158 lightning strikes per square kilometer. In South America, Colombia annually gets 57 strikes per square mile, while northern Pakistan sees 45 strikes per square mile each year.