News Columns & Blogs

Monday's storms provide vivid reminder of lightning's danger

Monday’s thunderstorms provided a fresh reminder of lightning’s danger, as three people were injured by bolts striking nearby: a mother and son in Hutchinson, and a 15-year-old boy in the 1200 block of South Paige in Wichita.

The two victims in Hutchinson declined transport to the hospital, while the boy in Wichita was taken to Via Christi Regional Medical Center-St. Francis Campus for treatment. He has since been released.

Police said the boy ran into his apartment and told his mother he couldn’t feel his legs. He had been playing outside at about 8:45 p.m. when a bolt struck nearby and the current passed through the pavement and into his legs.

I wasn’t surprised to learn of the lightning strikes. I went out to dinner, then to a friend’s house for a while Monday night. I watched the storms intensify on the drive from the restaurant to the house not far from KAKE. In just a few minutes lightning went from an occasional flicker to powerful cloud-to-ground bolts. I jogged from the street to the door, and then back out to the car when it was time to leave a little more than an hour later.

I told a friend on my cell phone that I almost didn’t need my headlights on for the drive home because the lightning was so steady and so bright. A woman was strolling casually across my complex’s parking lot when I pulled in at about 8:45 p.m., and I resisted the temptation to roll down my window and tell her to take shelter before lightning hit her.

That was right about the time the lightning struck the parking lot near Harry and Rock Road, injuring the 15-year-old boy. Andrew Sayler, a friend of mine who lives in far east Wichita, sent me several lightning photos he shot from his house last night. They’re pretty compelling.

Monday’s victims are lucky: they survived to talk about their experiences. So far this year, 27 people around the U.S. and Puerto Rico have been killed by lightning - including one in Kansas.

Forecasters confess to me they’re frustrated that people don’t seem to take lightning seriously. Perhaps it’s because they think they can’t possibly be hit by a lightning bolt. But a lightning expert told me and other journalists at the National Press Foundation’s “Understanding Violent Weather” conference in Norman, Okla., that the average person stands a far better chance of being hit by lightning than ever winning a lottery.

Perhaps the most compelling argument for taking lightning more seriously comes from Dick Elder, meteorologist in charge at the National Weather Service’s Wichita office. He said the odds quoted about lightning strikes are misleading because they factor in clear, sunny days - not just stormy ones. When there’s a thunderstorm rolling through the area, he said, our chances of being hit by a bolt are far better than people realize.

Just ask the mother and son in Hutchinson - or the teenage boy who was playing in the parking lot Monday night.