While the National Weather Service had predicted a chance of thunderstorms for Sunday afternoon, the sun was high, the weather was warm, and it seemed like a perfect day for a trip to California’s famed Venice Beach. However, the beautiful day soon turned terrifying.
Beachgoers told the Los Angeles Times, after 2 p.m. the sky suddenly darkened with a storm blowing in fast. Next, at around 2:50 p.m., a bolt of lightning hit the water. Those on the scene at Venice Beach described the accompanying crash of thunder as the loudest they’ve ever heard, telling CNN it sounded like “sonic boom” or “an explosion.” The electricity resulting from the lightning caused the death of one still-unidentified swimmer, a man thought to be about 20 years old, while also shocking more than a dozen others in the water.
Nearby, beachgoers also felt the jolt of electricity, many collapsing unconscious in the sand. One woman described being knocked off her chair. Two of those who endured the shock remain in the hospital in critical condition. Earlier in the day, the Times reported, another man on Catalina Island was struck by lightning and injured. Caught by surprise, the storm blew out as fast as it blew in, observers said.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, lightning strikes the earth more than eight million times per day, yet the risk of being struck is low. In fact, the Federal Emergency Management Agency estimates that about 300 people are injured each year due to lightning, which caused an average of only 35 deaths per year in the U.S. between the years 2003 and 2012.
Surprisingly, a direct strike is not often fatal. Only about 10 percent of people who are struck by a bolt actually die, usually due to a heart attack brought on by the jolt of electricity. Those struck usually sustain other injuries, including blunt trauma, muscle injuries, eye injuries (such as lightning-induced cataracts), skin lesions, and burns.
"It’s an electrical burn in its simplest form,” Dr. Joseph Zito, associate director of intensive and critical care at Franklin Hospital in Long Island, N.Y., told Weather.com. “[The lightning bolt] travels through the body and causes an entrance and exit wound, like a gunshot.” People who have been struck by lightning may also experience neurological conditions, though these are usually temporary. Such conditions may include short-term memory loss, difficulty processing new information, attention deficit, distractibility, dizziness, seizures, and even personality changes. During a lightning storm, bursts of energy, known as streamers or side flashes, may also shoot upward from the ground or objects near the ground and travel through nearby victims, causing similar harms as occur with a direct strike.
Water is a conductor of electricity, yet salt water is an even better conductor. If you are swimming and especially if you are in the ocean, you should immediately flee if there is sign of a coming storm. In fact, being outside during a lightning storm is not usually safe, so it is suggested you move inside, if possible. Your risk of being struck increases when you stand near or under tall trees, and it is recommended you avoid being the tallest object in an area. However, though it may seem an excellent idea to lie down on the ground, it is not. Lightning causes electric currents to ripple along the surface of the ground, and these can be deadly even beyond 100 feet from where a bolt strikes.
Your best chance of not being struck is finding shelter, though once inside you are not necessarily safe. According to the National Weather Service, lightning can enter a building or a house, and generally does so via three main routes: a direct strike, through wires or pipes that extend outside the structure; and through the ground. Once the bolt has entered a house, it can travel through the electrical, phone, plumbing, and radio/television reception systems. Yes, there's truth behind the idea that you should always turn off the TV during a storm! Lightning may also travel through any metal wires or bars woven into concrete walls or flooring. Overall, the Service suggests you stay safe while taking shelter inside a house or building by:
- Staying away from electrical equipment AND their cords.
- Remaining off porches and balconies, while avoiding windows and doors.
- Avoiding plumbing — do not wash your hands, take a shower, or do the dishes.
- Staying off concrete floors or walls; do not even lean against them.
Remember: Most people who are hurt by lightning while inside their homes are talking on the telephone. Though your cell phone or cordless is safe, always avoid using a landline during a storm.