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A Close Encounter With Lightning

Story by Matt Kelsch

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As you read the story below, think about how you would answer these questions.

  • How would you feel if you were in this weather event?
  • Would you do anything differently to make sure you stay safe?

In the early morning of July 5, 1973 the best fireworks show I have ever seen occurred near my Long Island home, less than 10 hours after the Fourth of July fireworks had ended. On Long Island, the scariest part of a thunderstorm is lightning. Frequent, close lightning strikes were what I loved and feared, and that day I was to get a show I’d remember for the rest of my life.

That morning, the voice on the weather radio warned about a line of strong thunderstorms moving east across New York City and onto Long Island. Judging from the crackle of the static on the radio, there was a lot of lightning traveling with these storms. The weather radar on the early morning news showed a line of gray-white blobs representing the thunderstorms. The brightest white blobs were the strongest storm cells. Were the brightest blobs headed my way? I was hopeful because I liked incredible storms. But, I also liked gardening, and I knew I only had about an hour to tend to my garden outside before the storm would chase me indoors.

By 6:30 AM my dad had left for the Great South Bay where he earned money during the summer as a clam digger. I was harvesting peas and picking up bottle rocket remnants that had fallen into the garden the previous night. Through the haze of the humid morning I could see dark gray clouds appearing on the west and northwest horizon. I was happy. I moved to the front yard rock garden where I had a better view of the approaching thunderstorms. Shortly before 7:00 AM, the western sky was dark and deep booms rumbled through the air. This was really going to be a good one! Within 5 minutes I began to see detail in the low, charcoal-colored cloud that was moving out ahead of the most intense part of the thunderstorm. The thunder had grown louder and sharper. At 7:10 AM the angry dark cloud was almost upon me. Just beyond the low hanging, dark cloud I could now see a slightly lighter cloud that offered a backdrop to many fat and long-lasting lightning bolts. I sat in the rock garden awestruck by the power and beauty of the show. In a place that received about 20 days per year with thunderstorms, I just didn’t get enough of this, or so I thought.

By 7:20 the darkest part of the cloud was directly overhead and the frequent dance of lightning bolts was getting quite close. Loud, crashing thunder followed less than 5 seconds after the lightning indicating that the lightning strikes were within a mile of me. Large raindrops began to splat on the ground around me as a breath of cool air pushed over me from the storm. I stood up and began backing toward the house, not able to take my eyes off the angry but fascinating sky. If only this could happen at least once a week, I thought. I wasn’t sure what would finally chase me indoors, rain or lightning. Then it hit. First there was a loud hiss that moved rapidly overhead and to my left, which was followed a split second later by a brilliant bolt of lightning into the back of the next-door neighbor’s house. The explosive force of the lightening bolt nearly knocked me off my feet. I couldn’t tell if my house had been hit. I turned toward the front door and paused briefly to see if the house was on fire. Another intense flash from behind was followed instantaneously by a deafening crash of thunder. I dashed inside. Although my nerves were quite rattled there was still that powerful desire to go back to the front door and watch the show. Within a minute I was sitting at the door beside my dog, Bismarck, who unlike many dogs enjoyed watching thunderstorms too. Heavy sheets of rain were swept along by the gusty wind as lightning continued hit within a mile or two of my location. After about ten minutes the most electrical part of the storm was off to the east and southeast and the rain became gentle.

When the storm ended I learned that lightning damaged houses on both sides of ours and struck a clump of three scrub oak trees just behind the house. At the base of the trees, large cobblestones were dislodged and two crows were found dead, apparently electrocuted. One of the trees dried up and died over the next few weeks. The lightening strike had caused dishes to fall from shelves and pictures to fall off walls along the back wall of the house. Half of the house had no electricity. The next-door neighbor on the other side lost a television set to the electrical surge and two of four bulbs in a kitchen light fixture popped when the lightning struck. A few miles away at the marina, my Dad had waited to set the boat into the bay when he heard the thunder. He saw several wet dazed fisherman stagger back into the marina after the storm, stunned by the ferocity of the sudden squall.

SAFETY RULES: (Adapted from NOAA)

  • Keep an eye on the sky and listen for the sound of thunder. Look for darkening skies, flashes of lightning, or increasing wind and listen for thunder.
  • If you see or hear a thunderstorm coming or your hair stands on end, go inside immediately! Get inside a completely enclosed building, or if no enclosed building is convenient, get inside a hard-topped all-metal vehicle.
  • Be the lowest point. Lightning hits the tallest object.
  • If you can't get to a shelter, stay away from trees. If there is no shelter, crouch in the open, keeping twice as far away from a tree as it is tall.
  • Avoid metal! Avoid leaning against metal vehicles. Get off bicycles and motorcycles. Don't hold on to metal items such golf clubs, fishing rods, tennis rackets or tools. Large metal objects can conduct lightning. Small metal objects can cause burns.
  • Get out of the water. It's a great conducter of electricity. Stay out of the water, off the beach and out of small boats or canoes. Lightning can strike the water and travel some distance beneath and away from its point of contact.
  • Move away from a group of people. Stay several yards away from other people. Don't share a bleacher bench or huddle in a group.

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