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Severe Thunderstorms Can Be More Dangerous than Tornadoes


By David E. Hubler
Contributor, EDM Digest

During the fall, trees and other foliage in the Northeast undergo their annual change from green to bright red, yellow and orange. However, weather forecasters are predicting that this autumn will usher in severe thunderstorms, damaging winds and locally heavy rainfall from eastern Canada to the mid-Atlantic states.

Lightning Kills More People than Tornadoes

Thunderstorms produce lightning, which makes them dangerous, even though these storms affect relatively small areas of about 15 miles in diameter and last an average of only 20 to 30 minutes. Yet lightning from thunderstorms “kills more people each year than tornadoes,” the National Disaster Education Coalition (NDEC) reports. In the U.S., between 75 and 100 people are killed each year by lightning.

It Is Possible to Survive Being Struck by Lightning

One popular myth associated with thunderstorms is that anyone struck by lightning will die from the electrocution. In truth, most lightning victims do survive, the NDEC says. However, people struck by lightning often report a variety of long-term, debilitating symptoms, including:

  • Memory loss
  • Attention deficits
  • Sleep disorders
  • Numbness
  • Dizziness
  • Stiffness in joints
  • Irritability
  • Fatigue
  • Weakness
  • Muscle spasms
  • Depression
  • Restlessness, such as an inability to sit still for long periods

A more common myth is that lightning never strikes the same place twice. In fact, lightning will strike several times in the same place in the course of one discharge.

Hailstones Are Also a Threat during Thunderstorms

In addition to lightning, strong thunderstorms can produce hail. Hailstones can be smaller than a pea or as large as a softball. Hailstones are particularly destructive to automobiles, glass surfaces such as skylights and windows, roofs, plants and crops.

Large hailstones can injure people and animals, sometimes severely. In fact, pets and livestock are particularly vulnerable to hail, so animals should be brought into shelters before storms begin.

Winds from Severe Thunderstorms Can Flip Vehicles

Of the estimated 100,000 thunderstorms that occur each year in the U.S., “only about 10 percent are classified as severe. The National Weather Service (NWS) considers a thunderstorm severe if it produces hail at least three-quarters of an inch in diameter, has winds of 58 mph or higher, or produces a tornado.

However, downbursts and straight-line winds associated with thunderstorms can produce winds of 100 to 150 mph. That’s strong enough to flip cars, vans and some trucks. The resulting damage can equal that of most tornadoes, the NDEC warns.

Preparing for Thunderstorms

The American Red Cross has produced a “Family Disaster Plan” that provides information on how to prepare for emergencies, including severe thunderstorms. The first step is to create a survival kit which should include:

  • One gallon of water per person to last three days
  • Three days of nonperishable, easy-to-prepare foods
  • A flashlight
  • A battery-powered or hand-cranked radio with access to NOAA Weather Radio
  • Extra batteries
  • A first-aid kit (available at the Red Cross Store)
  • A seven-day supply of medications and medical supplies
  • A multi-purpose tool
  • Sanitation and personal hygiene items
  • Important papers such as medical information, deeds/lease to home, passports, birth certificates and insurance policies
  • A cell phone with chargers
  • Family and emergency contact information
  • A substantial amount of cash

When You Hear Thunder, Seek Shelter Immediately to Avoid Lightning Strikes

The National Disaster Education Coalition warns that if you can hear thunder, you are in danger from lightning. If you are outdoors, seek indoor shelter immediately. Do not take cover under a tree.

“Because light travels so much faster than sound, lightning flashes can sometimes be seen long before the resulting thunder is heard. When the lightning and thunder occur very close to one another, the lightning is striking nearby,” the NDEC explains.

A rule of thumb to estimate how many miles you are from a thunderstorm, count the number of seconds between a flash of lightning and the next clap of thunder. Divide this number by five to get the distance between you and the storm.

David Hubler David E. Hubler brings a variety of government, journalism and teaching experience to his position as a Quality Assurance Editor at APUS. David’s professional background includes serving as a senior editor at CIA and the Voice of America. He has also been a managing editor for several business-to-business and business-to-government publishing companies. David has taught high school English in Connecticut and at Northern Virginia Community College. He has a master’s degree for Teachers of English from the University of New Hampshire and a B.A. in English from New York University. In March 2017, Rowman & Littlefield published the paperback edition of David’s latest book, "The Nats and the Grays, How Baseball in the Nation's Capital Survived WWII and Changed the Game Forever."