The death of a local teenage girl by lightning strike yesterday has highlighted the danger of thunderstorms, particularly in summer.
According to the SA Weather Service, South Africa has one of the highest incidences of lightning-related injuries and deaths in the world (more than 200 deaths on average each year), with only the USA and India experiencing more deaths on average per year.
North Coast Courier spoke with senior forecaster Puseletso Mofokeng about some of the danger factors. Mofokeng is a survivor of a lightning strike himself, so he speaks from the heart on this topic.
“We see a lot more injuries from lightning in the rural areas,” he said.
“People tend to take shelter while the rain is actively falling, but what they do not realise is that the greatest danger tends to be just before and just after the rain itself when people are out and about.”
According to statistics from the weather service, your odds of being struck by lightning in SA are about 1 in 350,000, but that can be reduced by following certain precautions:
- Stay indoors during a lightning storm and if you are travelling, stay inside the vehicle.
- When indoors stay away from windows, do not hold any metal objects, and do not use any electrical appliances.
- Do not use the telephone.
- Do not take a bath or shower during a lightning storm.
- If you are caught in the open, seek shelter in a building.
- Avoid hilltops and do not find shelter under lone trees or in isolated sheds.
- Keep a safe distance from fences, telephone or power lines, and steel structures such as pylons and windmills.
- Do not swim during a lightning storm and seek shelter if you are in a boat.
- If you are in an open playing sport, seek shelter – especially if you are fishing, or playing golf, soccer, or rugby.
Mofokeng said it was important to note that lightning could occur even when it was not raining.
“Lightning often strikes outside of heavy rain and may occur as far as 16 km away from any rainfall.”
Interestingly, rubber-soled shoes and rubber tires provide no protection from lightning. However, the steel frame of a hard-topped vehicle provides increased protection if you are not touching metal.
Although you may be injured if lightning strikes your car, you are much safer inside a vehicle than outside.
The common practice of stacking rubber tires on the roofs of informal dwellings also does not help at all.
“A corrugated iron dwelling is particularly dangerous. During a storm, stay inside and do not touch anything metal to be as safe as possible.”
Mofokeng was hit by lightning when trying to deal with bad drainage near his home after a storm.
“I could barely move my hands for a month after I was struck,” he recalled.
“This is a big risk factor in rural areas. Once the rain stops, people start trying to deal with water build up around their homes where there is poor drainage – but they should wait until the storm has moved far away before attempting to work with bodies of water.”
He said people should also not wash dishes, use metal tools (farming instruments such as ploughs increase the likelihood of lightning strikes, he said), or shelter under trees.
The local teenager who died was from Ntshaweni and was only fourteen. She was killed by the large electrical storm which rolled across KwaZulu-Natal recently, lighting up the sky as it went.
The girl was reportedly inside a building when she was struck.
IPSS Medical Rescue’s Paul Herbst said: “On arrival of paramedics resuscitation was initiated, but after all efforts were exhausted and no signs of life were apparent, the patient was declared dead.”