Summer Storm Safety for All Ages

Summer in the Triangle means long days by the swimming pool, lunchtime picnics in the park and frequent afternoon thunderstorms. Parents should keep a watchful eye on the skies so their families’ outdoor fun and relaxation can be safe and carefree.

Local weather experts want people of all ages to understand that North Carolina thunderstorms are dangerous, bringing the possibility of flash floods, damaging hail and tornadoes. Indeed, our state ranks third in the country in the number of fatalities attributed to lightning, according to Jonathan Blaes, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service at the N.C. State University Centennial Campus.

“Last year, the Triangle had 65 days in which thunderstorms occurred,” says Blaes. “The majority of these were during the summer months. People just need to be aware of the weather and be smart when storms are approaching.”

Thunderstorms erupt when warm, moist air rises and then cools, forming cumulus clouds. In North Carolina, they are the most common during April, May, June and July, peaking in June. They occur most often from mid-afternoon to early evening, declining significantly after 9 p.m. when the temperatures drop. According to a weather service severe climatology report for the region, there were more than 2,000 severe thunderstorms recorded in the Triangle from 1950 to 2004.

Triangle thunderstorms typically are born from the region’s climbing temperatures and the high humidity levels that come from the area’s proximity to the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico.

Lightning occurs when the cool air continues to swirl upward and collides with electrically charged ice particles in the atmosphere. When lightning is in the area, people need to postpone outdoor activities and move inside a home, building or hard-top automobile, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

Because light travels much faster than sound, lightning flashes can be seen long before the resulting thunder is heard. Families need to remember the 30/30 lightning safety rules: Go indoors if, after seeing lightning, you can’t count to 30 before hearing thunder, and stay indoors for 30 minutes after hearing the last clap of thunder.

The typical thunderstorm can produce hail that is ¾-inch in diameter or larger. It can whip up winds of 58 miles per hours, and it can produce dangerous tornadoes. During a storm, people should not handle electrical equipment or telephones because electrical currents from a lightning strike can follow the wires. Television sets are particularly dangerous. Experts also caution people to avoid bathtubs, water faucets and sinks because metal pipes can transmit electricity, as well. Tall structures such as towers, trees, fences and power lines also should be avoided, as should golf clubs, tractors, fishing rods, bicycles and metal camping equipment.

“Often people involved in outdoors activities such as playing golf or boating get so caught up in their activities they do not notice the bad weather coming,” says Blaes.

A person who has been struck by lightning does not carry an electrical charge. If the victim is burned, provide First Aid and call 911 immediately.

Strong thunderstorms also can spawn tornadoes that strike quickly with little or no warning. Danger signs of a tornado include a dark, often greenish sky, large hail, dark low-lying clouds and loud roar, similar to a freight train, according to FEMA. The National Weather Service will issue tornado watches when weather conditions are favorable to produce tornadoes; once a tornado has been spotted, a warning will be issued. During a tornado warning, people should seek shelter immediately in a pre-designated area or go to the center of an interior room on the lowest level away from corners, windows, doors and outside walls.

Another summer weather concern is flooding from quick-moving thunderstorms, says Blaes. “Most flood-related deaths occur when people drive their cars across flowed roadways,” he says. “Running water is extremely powerful and people often underestimate it. If you see water flowing over the roadways, turn around and go the other way.”