The swarm of thunderstorms that hit the Jersey Shore Sunday, July 27, produced numerous lightning strikes. One of them killed a Gateway National Recreation Area visitor and seriously injured two others.
At least nine other people were injured by lightning elsewhere in the New York City vicinity. Several of the victims were hospitalized.
The Park Service has closed the Gateway beaches as a precaution, but will reopen them Tuesday (weather permitting). Officials are also concerned about dangerous ocean conditions that caused several drownings at Long Island beaches over the weekend. One of those swimming fatalities was a Gateway visitor who drowned at Jacob Riis Park on Friday.
Yesterday’s lightning fatality showed that it is not only swimmers who need to be wary while using the Gateway beaches. Shortly after noon on Sunday, a beachgoer at Beach Area B in the Sandy Hook unit of Gateway National Recreation Area made a 911 call to report that lightning had injured several people on the beach. Arriving on the scene, rescuers found that a 38-year old man from Elizabeth, New Jersey had been killed by a lightning bolt while walking on the beach. There was what appeared to be an entry wound on his left hip and an exit wound in his neck, with major trauma.
The man's two cousins suffered minor injuries and were treated and released. A brother who was also present was uninjured.
Like the dead man, the two injured people had been on the sandy beach, not in the water.
At the time of the incident, the lifeguarded beaches at Sandy Hook were being evacuated because of the storm. Beach Area B (one of the five ocean beaches at Sandy Hook) is not a swimming beach and has no lifeguard assigned.
The weather data show that the fast-moving storms that swept through the area may have produced 32,000 lightning strikes in New Jersey alone.
Though a rare event at Sandy Hook (which apparently hasn't had a lightning fatality for at least 17 years) this tragic incident serves as a stark reminder that beaches in our national parks, like beaches everywhere, can be perilous places for visitors who don’t know -- or won’t put into practice -- basic lightning safety precautions such as those recommended by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
This is what NOAA has to say about places that pose special risks:
If a storm is approaching, avoid being in, or near, high places, open fields, isolated trees, unprotected gazebos, rain or picnic shelters, baseball dugouts, communications towers, flagpoles, light poles, bleachers (metal or wood), metal fences, convertibles, golf carts and water.
It’s clear that you need to immediately get out of the water and off the beach when lightning threatens. Beaches are very open places, making beachgoers, swimmers, and boaters exceptionally vulnerable to lightning strikes. Being in or on the water when lightning threatens is a very bad idea because water conducts electricity much better than land, and because recreational boats, like people on beaches, are juicy targets for lightning bolts.
Being aware of thunder is a key precaution. Under ideal conditions, you can hear thunder at a distance of 12-15 miles, but that’s uncommon. The lightning that causes that thunder you hear is usually lots closer than that. NOAA reminds us that we are at risk of being struck by lightning any time we can hear thunder.
Louder and more frequent thunder indicates that lightning is coming closer and closer. If there is a less than 30-second lapse between the flash and the thunder, you are unquestionably in the serious hazard zone. If you see the flash and hear the bang almost simultaneously, that bolt struck very close to you. If you haven’t taken emergency precautions by then, you are at lethal risk. People struck by lightning don’t hear the bolt that gets them.
Where should you go to be reasonably safe? What are the important do’s and don’ts of taking shelter? This is what NOAA advises:
No place is absolutely safe from the lightning threat, [but] some places are safer than others. Large enclosed structures are safer than smaller, or open, structures. Avoiding lightning injury inside a building depends on whether the structure incorporates lightning protection and its size.
[Also be aware that standing in a garage with the garage door open is not adequate protection.]
When inside during a thunderstorm, avoid using the telephone, taking a shower, washing your hands, doing dishes, or having contact with conductive surfaces, including metal doors, window frames, wiring and plumbing. Generally, enclosed metal vehicles, with the windows rolled up, provide good shelter from lightning.
To this I will add, don't stand near a chimney.
Taking shelter in a car is what lots of beach-fleeing people do, and that’s generally a great idea. You don’t want to be parked near big trees, because that raises the risk of being crushed if wind topples a big tree or branch. You most emphatically don’t want to be in a vehicle if a tornado roars through, because being inside a storm-tossed vehicle multiplies your risk of death or injury many, many times. But a vehicle does offer near-foolproof lightning protection.
Roll the windows up, even if it’s not raining. Keep your arms inside the vehicle and don’t touch the metal exterior. A lightning bolt that strikes a vehicle passes around the exterior and doesn’t go through the interior. That’s what keeps you safe. (Rubber tires have nothing whatsoever to do with lightning protection. In fact, the thought that rubber tires might provide some sort of “insulation” from a billion-volt lightning discharge is downright laughable.)
An open-sided picnic shelter is not the right place to be in an electrical storm. It may protect you from the rain, but unless the structure has been built with lightning protection, it won’t protect you from a lightning bolt. Choose an enclosed structure, preferably a large one, or head for your car.
Most people know that taking shelter under a tree –especially a lone, tall one -- can be a deadly mistake because trees are common targets for lightning. If you do take shelter under a tree – perhaps because the rain really bothers you and there’s no other choice – your best bet is to choose a grove of trees and stand under a randomly-chosen one that is the same height as those around it.
What if you are caught in the open, and it’s raining hard, and lightning is striking all around you? First, recognize that you are in bad trouble, but don’t panic. One thing you don’t want to do is lie down on the wet ground. Wet soil or sand is an excellent conductor, so lying down on it greatly increases the likelihood that you’ll be injured or killed by a nearby strike. Your best bet is to squat down, place your hands on your knees, bow your head, and rise up on the balls of your feet. This last-ditch tactic minimizes your exposure to the wet ground and creates a path for lighting to pass around the perimeter of your body (which is often a survivable event) rather than through the core of your body (which is more likely to severely injure or kill you).
Be sure to use this last-ditch defense – and very, very quickly -- if you feel a tingling sensation and your hair begins to stand on end. These electrical clues signal that a lightning bolt is about to strike, and you are dead-center in the bullseye.
I’m sure you already know that a lightning victim cannot “hold an electrical charge” and is safe to touch. If you see that somebody has been injured by lightning, call for help and then, if necessary, perform CPR until emergency help arrives. If you have to make a choice, closed chest heart compressions are considered more helpful than rescue breathing.
So, enjoy the national park beaches this summer, folks, but keep a weather eye out and remember the lightning safety rules.