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June 18, 2004
CONTACT: Carol Anderson

EMU’s weather expert suggests safety measures to help avoid being struck by lightning


YPSILANTIThe hazy, lazy days of summer could be a jolting experience for Michigan residents. June through August are the prime months for lightning activity in the state, said Eastern Michigan University’s weather expert Carl Ojala, professor of geography, who cautions people to respect lightning and its power.

That’s why June 20-26 has been designated National Lightning Safety Awareness Week by the National Weather Service. It’s a time when experts like Ojala and the weather service emphasize safety issues and bring the danger of lightning to the public’s attention. Lightning is a discharge of atmospheric electricity in the clouds or between clouds and the ground, usually occurring during a thunderstorm.

“If you can hear thunder, you’re in real danger. You can see lightning 50 miles in the distance, but if you can hear thunder, the lightning is about 10 miles away,” said Ojala, who has maintained the National Weather Service Cooperative Weather Station located on EMU’s campus since 1986.

By taking a few precautions, said Ojala, Michiganians may avoid becoming a lightning statistic. He recommends the following steps to follow during a thunderstorm:

  • If you are in a boat, turn it around and head for land as quickly as possible. “The worst place to be during a storm is on a boat. Water is an incredible conductor of lightning,” Ojala said.
  • Get off golf courses, playing fields or anywhere that you are the highest point of contact since lightning targets the highest point.
  • Stay away from seeking shelter under a tree. Lightning is conducted through the tree and can “splash” in many directions as it exits the trunk.
  • Driving a metal car is a good place to be during a storm, but don’t touch the steering wheel. Lightning will go around the car’s metal frame and exit through the tires. “Rubber in the tires is irrelevant to safety,” said Ojala.
  • Go indoors. It’s the best place to be during a thunderstorm. Southeastern Michigan gets about 40 thunder days per year where there is at least one storm per day. We have already experienced at least 20 thunder days this year, Ojala said.
  • Stay away from water or a corded telephone. Lightning travels through metal pipes and electrical cords so if you are inside your home, don’t shower or wash the dishes. If you must use the telephone, make sure it’s cordless.

            “The most dangerous time for a lightning hit is just before and just after rainfall,” said Ojala. “And don’t think that lightning never strikes the same person or place twice.” A farmer in Kansas has been hit seven times and the Empire State Building is a lightning target 25-30 times a year.

Because lightning claims only one or two victims at a time, it usually receives less attention than tornados or hurricanes that cause mass destruction, according to the National Weather Service.

Michigan ranks second only to Florida for lightning activity. From 1959-2003, Michigan has had 810 lightning casualties, of those 708 were injuries and 102 were deaths, said Ojala.

Recent examples of lightning strikes include two deaths and three injuries. Three Washtenaw County men were hit in September 2003 as they were roofing a building. One died and two were injured. In Lenawee County, a woman was hit and killed in August 2003 as she stood in her backyard. That same day in Macomb County, a woman was injured when lightning struck as she was loading groceries into her car.

            Out of every 10 lightning casualties, seven to eight survive, but they have long-term health problems, said Ojala.

            Eastern Michigan University is a public, comprehensive, metropolitan university that offers programs in the arts, sciences and professions. EMU prepares students with the intellectual skills and practical experiences to succeed in their careers and lives, and to be better citizens.


Eastern Michigan University is a public, comprehensive university that offers programs in the arts, sciences and professions. EMU prepares students with the intellectual skills and practical experiences to succeed in their career and lives, and to be better citizens.

Editor's Note: Looking for an expert source for a story? Check out EMU's Eastern Experts online at www.emich.edu/univcomm/easternexperts.

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