Lightning Safety

Lightning is no stranger to Trinidad and Tobago as it accompanies thunderstorm activity in the region. Although most lightning occurs in the Wet Season across T&T, people can be struck at any time of year. Lightning strike-injuries and fatalities are rare in T&T, but all too frequently, lightning strikes damage property and cause power outages.

What you need to take away

  • NO PLACE outside is safe when thunderstorms are in the area!
  • If you hear thunder, lightning is close enough to strike you.
  • When you hear thunder, immediately move to safe shelter: a substantial building with electricity or plumbing or an enclosed, metal-topped vehicle with windows up.
  • Stay in safe shelter at least 30 minutes after you hear the last sound of thunder.
  • Do not take shelter under trees!

Understanding The Threat

The threat that someone will be struck by lightning depends on their behavior when thunderstorms are in the area. The graphs below provide some insight into why and when people are struck by lightning and what can do to lower their risk.

The threat of lightning as a thunderstorm passes near your location (NOAA)
The threat of lightning as a thunderstorm passes near your location (NOAA)

The threat of lightning increases as a thunderstorm approaches reaches a peak when the storm is overhead, and then gradually diminishes as the storm moves away. At the same time, it’s people’s behavior that determines the risk of a fatal lightning strike. While some people move inside at the first signs of a thunderstorm, many people wait far too long to get to a safe place. Some wait until the thunderstorm is overhead and it starts to rain. Others, due to poor planning, are caught outside and can’t get to a safe place.

Although most people get inside, some put themselves at risk by touching items that could become electrified by a nearby lightning strike. Finally, many people go outside too soon after the storm has seemingly passed, often only waiting for the rain to become lighter or end. It is all of these unsafe behaviors that put people at risk when thunderstorms are in the area.

Minimizing The Threat

To minimize your personal risk of being struck by lightning, when going outside, plan ahead so that you can get to a safe place quickly if a thunderstorm threatens. If the sky looks threatening or if you hear thunder, get inside a safe place immediately.

Reducing lightning casualties by understanding the thunderstorm risk (NOAA)
Reducing lightning casualties by understanding the thunderstorm risk (NOAA)

Once inside, avoid contact with corded phones, electrical equipment, plumbing, and windows and doors. Finally, wait 30 minutes after the last lightning or thunder before going back outside. If everyone followed those simple rules, the number of lightning casualties in this country could be greatly reduced.

Protecting Yourself Outdoors

There is little you can do to substantially reduce your risk if you are outside in a thunderstorm. The only completely safe action is to get inside a safe building or vehicle if a thunderstorm is nearby.

If you’re at the beach or generally outdoors, your best course of action is to seek shelter within your vehicle or a nearby building. Do NOT seek shelter under the beach picnic shelters. Wait 30 minutes until after the last rumble of thunder before going back to the beach.

If you absolutely cannot get to safety, you can slightly lessen the threat of being struck with the following tips. However, you are NOT safe outside. If there is a high chance of thunderstorms, stay inside.

  • Avoid open fields, the top of a hill or a ridge top.
  • Stay away from tall, isolated trees or other tall objects. If you are in a forest, stay near a lower stand of trees.
  • If you are in a group, spread out to avoid the current traveling between group members.
  • Stay away from water, wet items, such as ropes, and metal objects, such as fences and poles. Water and metal do not attract lightning but they are excellent conductors of electricity. The current from a lightning flash will easily travel for long distances.

If you’re on a bicycle, motorcycle or dirt bike: If you see threatening skies in the distance and you are near a safe building, pull over and wait 30 minutes after the last rumble of thunder before resuming your ride.

Out at sea: The vast majority of lightning injuries and deaths on boats occur on small boats with NO cabin. It is crucial to listen to weather information when you are boating. If thunderstorms are forecast, do not go out. If you are out and cannot get back to land and safety, drop anchor, and get as low as possible. Large boats with cabins, especially those with lightning protection systems properly installed, or metal marine vessels are relatively safe. Remember to stay inside the cabin and away from any metal surfaces. Stay off the radio unless it is an emergency!

Protecting Yourself Indoors

Safe shelters are buildings with electricity and plumbing or metal-topped vehicles with the windows closed. There are three main ways lightning enters structures: a direct strike, through wires or pipes that extend outside the structure or through the ground. Once in a structure, lightning can travel through the electrical, phone, plumbing, and radio/television reception systems. Lightning can also travel through any metal wires or bars in concrete walls or flooring.

  • Stay off corded phones. You can use cellular or cordless phones.
  • Don’t touch electrical equipment such as computers, TVs, or cords. You can use remote controls safely.
  • Avoid plumbing. Do not wash your hands, take a shower, or wash dishes during a thunderstorm.
  • Stay away from exterior windows and doors that might contain metal components leading from outside your home to the inside.
  • Stay off balconies, porches and out of open garages.
  • Do not lie on concrete floors or lean against concrete walls.
  • Protect your pets: Dog houses are not safe shelters. Dogs that are chained to trees or on metal runners are particularly vulnerable to lightning strikes.
  • Protect your property: Lightning generates electric surges that can damage electronic equipment some distance from the actual strike. Typical surge protectors will not protect equipment from a lightning strike. Do not unplug equipment during a thunderstorm as there is a risk you could be struck.

More information can be found at the United States National Weather Service.

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