Florida and lightning: A natural wonder with a deadly toll

  • Article by: CLAIRE WISEMAN , TAMPA BAY TIMES
  • Updated: August 15, 2014 - 5:57 PM

Florida has an outsized number of lightning strike deaths

Lighting from an approaching thunderstorm hit near the shore in Panama City Beach, Fla., earlier this summer.

Photo: Associated Press,

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Earlier this month, a dazed motorcyclist wandered into a St. Petersburg gas station. He had sought shelter under the station’s awning and was struck by lightning.

When paramedics arrived, the man had recovered enough to refuse treatment. He was lucky. Though rare, fatal lightning strikes this year have been more prevalent in Florida than any other state in the nation.

Lightning doesn’t capture as many headlines as, say, a shark attack, but can be deadlier. So far this year it has killed in a Milton blueberry patch, on two rooftops, at the edge of a Plant City lake and on a Fort Myers beach.

The Tampa Bay area is particularly prone. Every square kilometer of “Lightning Alley” sees nine strikes a year, said Tyler Fleming, a forecaster for the National Weather Service.

Of the 19 lightning deaths reported nationwide so far this year, six have occurred in Florida.

Lightning is prevalent in the state, Fleming said, because it is one big peninsula and sea breezes from the gulf tend to push in thunderstorms with frequency, he said.

“July is normally the peak time for the whole country, and Florida in particular,” he said.

Lightning strikes that kill often do so by knocking the heart into a rhythm it can’t maintain, said Dr. Jeremy Ingram, an emergency room physician at Bayfront Health St. Petersburg. He likened it to applying a defibrillator paddle to a healthy heart.

“If you shock the normal heart, you’ll put it into a fatal rhythm,” Ingram said.

Even though survivors can be considered fortunate, they can be left with hearing loss, cataracts, numbness, dizziness, memory loss and cardiac problems.

How one is struck makes all the difference.

“You’re going to have probably a much better chance of surviving if it’s an indirect hit versus a direct hit,” Ingram said.

Advice for avoiding lightning strikes is fairly straightforward: Stay inside. But Floridians love their outdoor play, from golfing and swimming to walking the beach. Waiting to actually see lightning before heading indoors at the sign of a storm can be a dangerous gamble.

Twenty-three people were killed by lightning in 2013 in the United States, the lowest since 2006, Fleming said. He said he hopes it’s because the public is getting the message:

“When thunder roars, go indoors.”

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