Cheryl Kimball's Nature Talks: Lightning strike is not the best path to enlightenment

August 22. 2014 8:07PM

A FRIEND admitted to me recently that she is petrified of thunderstorms. When skies darken and particularly when even distant thunder begins to rumble she heads for the comfort of her stairwell in the middle of her house, far enough up the stairs where she can be surrounded on both sides by walls.

If her young grandchildren are with her — and perhaps even if they are not — she brings a wireless tablet device and they watch a video until the skies clear. While this seems extreme to me, a recent post by a Facebook friend made it seem that perhaps the stairwell retreat is not such a bad idea.

My Facebook friend reported standing at her kitchen window watching a fairly violent thunderstorm pass through. When a bolt of lightning struck close, she didn’t see exactly where it hit but saw a big red flash, sending her to the relative safety of the middle of her house. Her neighbor gave her the report the next day that a big oak tree in his yard had been hit. My friend went to see the remains of the tree; her description was so vivid, I got her permission to quote her verbatim:

“ … the base of the tree was just splintered wood … it was like the tree had exploded. There were shards of wood all over the place, up in trees that were 15 feet away, pieces of wood stabbed into the ground, reflector lights going up the driveway had been blown out of their metal holders. One of the metal holders was bent in the shape of a C.”

The lightning had traveled an electrical path through the house. Her neighbor had been sitting at his computer and was in the path of the strike, describing it as incredibly painful, enough to send him to the hospital where thankfully he checked out fine.

Was it the best idea to be working on a computer during an electrical storm? Probably not. Do many of us do it anyway? I think so. My friend who reported all this admitted loving to watch these storms from a window in the house.

I do too. Sometimes I stand in the barn doors and just watch it swirl all around me. I’ve seen a ball of fire explode in front of our garage — there went the garage door openers. The barn is around 75 yards from the house; if I am ready to go in, I wait for a lightning flash then make a run for the porch. I don’t know how scientific that method is, but I have not yet been struck.

Windows and barn doors are not considered a safe place to watch a thunderstorm although, according to the National Weather Service, of the 19 fatalities that have occurred in the United States so far in 2014, none of the strikes occurred to someone who was indoors.

Two people were up on roofs, five were near or actually in trees, one person was picking blueberries, one person was horseback riding and another was riding his motorcycle on the highway. Yikes.

The NWS also says that, since 2006, the average annual number of fatalities from lightning are 51. That’s a long way to go from 19; let’s make sure none of us end up part of that statistic.

The NWS gives some tips on staying safe during a thunderstorm. The safest shelter is a building that has plumbing or electricity which directs a lightning strike — presumably away from you, unless you are using something connected to that electrical or plumbing system.

A vehicle is safe if it has a metal roof; they recommend not touching anything metal in the vehicle and pulling over and waiting out the storm. You can safely use a cellphone, as long as it’s not connected to a charger, and a cordless phone.

Porches and picnic shelters are not safe places to wait out or watch an electrical storm. Also, the NWS warns that you bring in pets; dogs tied to trees are especially vulnerable.

One of the best contemporary nature writers, Gretel Ehrlich, wrote a book about her experience being struck by lightning. “Before electricity carved its blue path toward me … I had been walking. I woke in a pool of blood, lying on my stomach some distance from where I should have been, flung at an odd angle to one side of the dirt path … The muscles in my throat were paralyzed and I couldn’t swallow … I had trouble seeing, talking, breathing, and I couldn’t move my legs or my right arm. Nothing remained in my memory — no sounds, flashes, smells, no warnings of any kind. The pain in my chest intensified and every muscle in my body ached. I was quite sure I was dying.”

A follower of Buddhism, she tried to remember what she had learned about the Buddhist approach to preparing to die. Ehrlich says “To be struck by lightning: what a way to get enlightened.” If you haven’t read her book, “A Match to the Heart,” it’s worth putting on your reading list.

Cheryl Kimball is a freelance writer who lives north of Rochester. You can email her at

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