Don't Get Zapped By Lightning

In May 2000, Michael P. Utley, then a 48-year-old stockbroker, was playing in a charity golf tournament at the Pocasset Golf Course on Cape Cod when a storm alert sounded, ordering everybody to seek shelter immediately.

Fifteen seconds later Utley lie sprawled on the green, his shoes blown off, fingers and toes singed, and his hair completely burned – one of hundreds of people struck by lightning in the United States every year.

Technically, Utley was one of the dozens killed because doctors initially pronounced him dead, but they managed to revive him. Utley then spent 38 days in Brigham & Women s Hospital's Intensive Care Unit and another three months and another three months at the Health/South rehabilitation in Braintree, Mass.

Today, more than 11 years later, Utley still bears the physical and emotional scars of the strike, but can't recall specific details.

"I have no memory of being hit," he said in a telephone interview the other day.

The incident did more than leave scars, though – it motivated Utley to educate the public about the dangers of lightning, and a decade ago he helped create the website struckbylightning.org that keeps statistics on injuries and deaths caused by electrical storms, and also as an unofficial support group of sorts for victims.

His best advice is a simple message: "There is no safe place outdoors in a thunderstorm."

I should have heeded Utley's words only minutes before I called him.

A friend and I were finishing a 10-mile kayak outing on Rangeley Lake in Maine on Thursday when a dark cloud appeared over Bald Mountain on the western shore.

"I think we can beat it," I said, realizing we had only about half a mile to go.

Thirty seconds later a squall veered toward us and torrential rain pounded down. We sprinted for shore and were just pulling our boats up when a deafening crash followed a blinding flash. We ditched the kayaks and sprinted for the cabin as more bolts hurtled down.

I told Utley about our close call.

"You were lucky," he said, and I agreed.

At one time authorities suggested people had plenty of time to seek shelter at the first signs of a storm, but Utley said that has promoted a false sense of security.

The narrative on his website explains the evolution of a new, more cautious approach to lightning safety:

In 2001 or so, NOAA started a lightning safety group that contained

the best people in the country on lightning and lightning safety. We

had people form Kennedy Space Center, University of Ohio, Vaisala, (a

private company in lightning detection), NOAA, and the National

Weather Service. I was invited into the group and learned a lot over

the years I was with them. It is because of this group that lightning

safety evolved from what it was to something based on science and what

worked. It was a hard job convincing groups that almost everything

they knew about lightning safety was wrong. Which, by the way is still

the problem.

"The first big move towards a committed front was the 30-30 Rule. If

you see lightning, you start counting, if you hear thunder within 30

seconds, the lightning is closer than 10 miles away and you should be

in a safe place, and stay there for 30 minutes," Utley said.

However, that rule has been bent and misinterpreted, so people started thinking they simply had to get to a safe place if they heard thunder.

"We realized that a

lightning bolt can easily be more than 10 miles long, so it became a

better idea to go inside and count. So the 30-30 Rule, which was

widely pushed and grabbed on to by every group that needed a lightning

safety program, was fast becoming outdated and even dangerous. If you

go to almost any organizations safety web site from NOAA, FEMA, and

many private groups, you will find it is still there," he said.

Utley said the safety team tried coming up with a slogan – similar to

"stop, drop, and roll" that teaches youngsters what to do if their clothes catch fire. One lightning expert, Bill Roeder, devised, "When thunder

roars, go indoors," which struckbylightning.org copyrighted in 2003.

Utley repeats that phrase whenever he visits school groups and makes public appearances. He is a man on a mission, and I give him enormous credit for his passion and dedication.

Utley also encourages people with statistics and stories about lightning to get in touch with him through the website.

He hears from people all around the world and send out emails whenever there's new information or updated casualty data. In 2012, for instance, 212 people in the United States were struck by lightning, 28 fatally. So far this year, 16 have been killed and 191 struck.

All of us who venture into the great outdoors have been caught in storms. Sometimes there's not much you can do – such as when you're hiking above tree line or kayaking far from shore. As always, check the weather reports before heading out, and try to have a "Plan B" in place in the event of a storm.

I hope none of us winds up on Utley's website, and am happy to help spread his word.

Stay safe and remember: "When thunder

roars, go indoors,"

Reader Comments

MORE BLOGS

Our Debt of Gratitude to President Obama, the Environmentalist-in-Chief

As we prepare to inaugurate a president who has repeatedly called climate change a "hoax," appointed as Environmental Protection Agency administrator an Oklahoma attorney general who is suing that agency, named the CEO of ExxonMobil as secretary...

Call of the Wild: A Clash Over Cellphones in The Great Outdoors

"Yeah, I’m standing on the summit now! … The view is incredible – I can’t believe I’m getting a signal up here!"

It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year: Plunging into Icy Fishers Island Sound at the Annual New Year's Day Run-Swim

Look, I’m not going to lie: While some longtime participants in one of southeastern Connecticut’s most enduring, challenging and madcap traditions insist that plunging into icy water after a run on Jan. 1 is a refreshing and...

No Such Thing as Too Much Fun: A Great 2016; Hopes for an Even Better 2017

When it comes to adventurous fun my philosophy has always been too much is never enough, so when I look back at the highlights of the past 12 months, as I typically do when the calendar is about to flip, I can honestly say that 2016 was a...

Hey, Has Anybody Else Noticed It's Gotten A Little Chilly?

I guess I first realized the temperature had dropped a few degrees when I went out for a 5-mile run this morning and noticed that my eyelids had started to freeze shut, which loyal readers will recognize as Level IV on the Fagin Frigidity Index,...

Granola Munchers Vs. Snickers Gobblers: Conflict Over Plans for a Hotel on New Hampshire's Mount Washington

The first time friends and I trudged up New Hampshire’s Mount Washington in winter the frozen peak might as well have been Antarctica – hurricane-force winds and blinding snow battered us, the only climbers that day atop the highest...

How to Build a Stone Wall in 14,863 Easy Steps

I realized long ago that you’re never really finished building a stone wall, even after you’ve dragged and hefted into place what seemed like the final boulder, exhaled mightily and stepped back to admire your work.

Just in Time for the Holidays: Fagin's Annual Gift Catalogue for the Discerning Outdoorsman and Outdoorswoman

How often does this happen to you: You’re merrily tearing through the woods in your four-wheeler and come to what looks like a shallow stream but turns out to be a deep, water-filled ditch, so your beloved machine sinks like a stone beneath...

Arduous Autumn

In spring we crawl out of our cocoons and celebrate bursting rejuvenation; in summer we play outside from dawn to dusk; during the dark, frigid winter we hunker down like hibernating bears – which leaves fall, when we try to set aside time...

Chain Saw? We Don't Need No Stinking Chain Saw…

So, did you hear that doctors have developed a new method of performing an appendectomy without using anesthesia? It’s exactly like the old operation, except it hurts like a son of a b.

You CAN Go Home Again: A Run Through My Old West Haven Stomping Grounds

Although for decades I’ve been living in a home surrounded by trees that is heated primarily by wood stoves, and I enjoy kayaking, mountain climbing, building stone walls, growing organic vegetables and many other active outdoor pursuits,...

Utah Rocks Part II: Kayaking Down The Colorado River

Propelled by a swift current on the Colorado River earlier this month, my son, Tom, and I gazed at red rock cliffs gleaming against an azure, near cloudless sky. The rustle of aspen and cottonwoods in a gentle breeze mingled with the rush of...

Utah Rocks: Adventures Among The Arches And The Rapids (Part I)

You know how it feels when you witness something so astonishingly exquisite and surreal it literally takes your breath away, and all you can do is gasp in amazement?