There are undoubtedly more pressing dangers than being hit by lightning: The chance of being struck is less than one in a million, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But lightning does occasionally strike humans, as a few recent high-profile cases made clear.
On Friday, a lightning strike killed a mom picking up her child from school in Florida. And in early August, lightning killed three people sheltering under a tree near the White House.
So far, 14 people have died from lightning strikes in the US in 2022, according to the National Weather Service – up from 11 deaths in 2021.
But these are tiny groups considering the nation’s population numbers over 300 million and there are over 25 million lightning strikes in the US per year, the weather service says. It’s also worth noting 90% of lightning strike victims survive.
Still – here are a few things you can do to lower your chances.
‘When thunder roars, go indoors’
The National Weather Service has a simple but effective slogan: “When thunder roars, go indoors.”
As soon as you hear thunder, see lightning or the sky looks threatening, you should head indoors as quickly as possible.
“The most important thing is that you’re safe inside of a large substantial building or a fully enclosed, metal-top vehicle,” Ron Holle, a meteorologist and lightning safety specialist at the National Lightning Safety Council, told CNN. “Anywhere outside of those two locations is not safe.”
A substantial building means a structure with proper wiring and plumbing, Holle explained. Tents, sheds, dugouts and picnic shelters are not safe from lightning strikes.
This is because when lightning hits a home or other building, it travels through the plumbing and wiring to grounded rods that safely channel all that electricity into the earth. A tent or smaller shelter offers no such protection.
If you hear thunder while camping or at the beach, without access to a large building, you should seek shelter in your vehicle immediately.
You should wait 30 minutes from the last time you heard thunder to leave the vehicle, according to the weather service.
Bikers or motorcyclists who hear thunder should pull over at a safe building and also wait until 30 minutes have passed since the last rumble.
Avoiding lightning indoors
OK, so you heard thunder and headed inside a proper building. Good news: “You’re infinitely more safe inside than you are outside,” said Holle.
The next step is to close the windows and avoid using corded electrical devices, according to the National Weather Service.
“You don’t want to be attached to wiring and plumbing, like holding a wired telephone, or holding onto an appliance when lightning is hitting the house,” explained Holle. “Having your hands attached to flowing water in the sink or bathtub” also poses a risk, he said.
You should also stay away from balconies, porches, garages, windows and doors to the outside, the weather service says.
And if the outside isn’t safe for humans during a storm, it’s also not safe for pets. Take your pets inside as soon as possible when you hear thunder, according to the weather service. Dog houses do not provide protection from lightning strikes and dogs tied to trees are in particular danger, the agency says.
Save the boat trip for another day
Most large boats with cabins are pretty safe during a thunderstorm, according to the weather service. Small boats without a cabin are another story.
“The vast majority of lightning injuries and deaths on boats occur on small boats with NO cabin,” the weather service says. “It is crucial to listen to weather information when you are boating.”
The service advises people to not go boating when thunderstorms are forecast. If you hear thunder while on the water, you should return to shore as quickly as possible – and ideally get at least 100 yards from shore.
If you can’t head to shore, you should drop anchor, get as low as possible and stay inside the cabin – and keep away from any metal surfaces, like the radio you might have been using to track the weather in the first place.
But if you’re not on the boat – or the boat has no cabin – you’re actually better off staying in deep water during the storm than returning aboard, according to the weather agency.
A last resort: Staying safe outdoors
One key lightning avoidance strategy is awareness and planning.
Read the weather forecast and know if thunderstorms are expected in the places you’re going to be. Time your schedule so you can avoid being outside when thunderstorms are expected. Professional lightning detection equipment can also be used to alert when lightning is nearing.
“If you’re outside, you’re highly vulnerable to lightning,” Holle said.
If getting indoors isn’t possible, there are still a few things that may slightly lessen your risk.
In a thunderstorm, avoid open fields, the top of a hill, or a ridge top, the weather service says. Likewise, you should stay away from tall, isolated objects like trees, and immediately leave any bodies of water. Of course, you’ll also want to avoid any wet or metal items that could conduct electricity.
Low areas like valleys and ravines are a safer bet. If you’re in a group, spread out to prevent any current from traveling between people, the weather service says. And don’t lie flat on the ground.
Still, Holle noted that the evidence for many of these lightning avoidance strategies is still unclear.
The most important thing is to get inside: Almost all lightning deaths in the US over the past few decades have occurred outside, he said.
Lightning strikes around the world
“Most people in the US have a lightning safe building or lightning safe vehicle really close by, and they just simply need to go there,” Holle said. “This is not the case for millions of people around the world.”
As of 2016, the top lightning hotspot in the world was Lake Maracaibo in Venezuela. But Africa is the continent with the highest number of these hotspots, according to NASA, with six of the world’s top 10 spots found there. Most are lakes, including Lake Victoria, which overlaps Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania.
Holle is working with an organization called ACLENet that aims to decrease deaths, injuries and property damage from lightning across Africa. The organization is based in Uganda, where deaths still regularly occur for people inside homes with no wiring or plumbing.
They advocate for better lightning safety education and the installation of functional lightning protection systems for schools and other buildings.
Surviving a lightning strike
Although the vast majority of lightning strike victims survive, the effects can be serious and long-lasting.
Survivors have experienced debilitating injuries, burns and ongoing disability, including symptoms like seizures and memory loss.
If someone around you is struck by lightning, immediately call 911, says the National Weather Service.
People who have been struck by lightning don’t carry an electrical charge, according to the CDC – so it’s safe to touch and move them. Get them indoors if possible. The victim’s heart or breathing may have stopped and they may need CPR.
There are also organizations providing resources for survivors, like Lightning Strike and Electric Shock Survivors International, which promotes medical research and ongoing support for survivors of lightning and electrical injury.