Steve Marshburn Sr. was hit by a thunderbolt in 1969 -- while working indoors at a bank. The lightning flashed from ten miles away, struck a drive-through teller window, entered the bank building through an ungrounded speaker and shot into his spine. Since then, Marshburn has suffered myriad ailments, including headaches, muscle cramps, blurred vision, rashes, food allergies and back pain; he has endured 25 operations and countless discussions with doctors, many of whom did not believe his injuries were lightning-related. So in 1989, Marshburn helped found Lightning Strike & Electrical Shock Survivors International (lightning-strike.org), a North Carolina-based organization that now has more than a thousand members and offers everything from medical referrals to books filled with survivors' stories to an annual gathering of those survivors. But more than anything else, Marshburn offers understanding: "We've talked thirteen people out of suicide and saved three marriages," he says.
Michael Cherrington approaches the phenomena from another direction. The Denver neurologist is the co-founder of Lightning Research Center, an ad hoc, interdisciplinary think tank that meets at St. Anthony's Hospital to discuss lightning from every angle imaginable. The group formed in 1992, after Cherrington was presented with a patient who'd been struck by lightning while riding a bicycle. Cherrington, an avid cyclist himself, decided to see how often cyclists were struck. He pored over years of storm data and eventually compiled a report that was published in a sports-medicine journal. Soon after, he was contacted by a meteorologist and an electrical engineer who were also fascinated by lightning. The three sat down to lunch, and "the rest is history," Cherrington says.
Numerous studies have been sparked by the group's discussions, including a 1992 project that found that lightning injuries and deaths are under-reported in Colorado by 42 percent and 28 percent, respectively. "It has been enormously successful at producing ideas," Cherrington says.
The Colorado Lightning Resource Center, an arm of the Pueblo-based National Weather Service (crh.noaa.gov/pub), and the National Lightning Safety Institute in Louisville (lightningsafety.com), a nonprofit education, training and inspection group, both have Web sites loaded with lightning data, statistical trends and safety tips. For example:
Before going hiking, bicycling, or even taking the kids to soccer practice, check weather reports. In Colorado, most lightning strikes begin in the mountains around 11 a.m.
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If you're outside during a storm, find a sturdy building with grounded plumbing and wiring; open shelters such as covered picnic sites will not protect you. If a sturdy building is not available, get inside a hardtop automobile, which is safe not because of the rubber tires, but because lightning will travel along the outer metal shell. If you can't find a car, find the lowest possible spot, away from hilltops, tall trees, fences or poles. Drop any metal objects, such as golf clubs or umbrellas. If you feel your hair standing on end, crouch on the balls of your feet with your head down, cover your ears, and don't touch the ground with your hands. Ground currents can spread sixty feet; the more of you that comes in contact with the ground, the greater your chances of being hit by a strike.
If you're indoors, unplug appliances, stay away from metal fixtures and avoid using land-line telephones and computers. Utility lines, conduits and metal plumbing can -- and do -- conduct lightning. Do not take a shower or bath; water is also an excellent conductor. Do not venture outdoors until at least thirty minutes after the last thunderclap.
"The most important thing people need to know is the capricious nature of lightning," says Steve Hodanish, a meteorologist and lightning expert with the National Weather Service. "It can come from miles away. It can get into places where people don't think it can. People have to respect its power."
Mary Ann Cooper, a lightning-injury specialist at the University of Illinois Medical School in Chicago, has helped redefine appropriate treatment for lightning survivors. In the past, physicians often didn't know how to handle lightning cases because little hard information was available; standard anatomical tests such as MRIs and CAT scans would tell them only if a brain was functioning, not how well it was functioning. Bottom line, Cooper says, there are two things people should know about lightning: "A, you don't want to be a victim. And B, you are primarily responsible for preventing your own injury. The National Weather Service cannot always warn you, as they might with impending dangers of floods or tornadoes. In the end, it's really up to you."