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'Sparky' knows lightning's threat intimately

  • Story Highlights
  • Lightning is the second-leading cause of weather-related deaths in the U.S.
  • It is a constant threat from spring through fall no matter where you live
  • In a storm, go inside a large, enclosed building; sheds don't give much protection
  • If stranded outdoors, squat low, tuck your head, touch ground as little as possible
  • Next Article in Health »
By Judy Fortin
CNN
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SAVANNAH, Georgia (CNN) -- Joe Sauers doesn't get too upset when his co-workers call him "Sparky" or whenever they move away from him during a thunderstorm.

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Lightning is a constant threat from spring through fall no matter where you live, meteorologists say.

Sauers, 55, is well-known around the Savannah, Georgia, Port Authority, where he works, as the man who has survived being hit by lightning twice.

Sauers suffered serious injuries after the first strike 11 years ago. He remembers standing about a foot from a backyard tree when it was hit. "It rattles your whole body," Sauers said. "It felt like I was on fire."

He said the electrical current first hit on top of his forehead, cracking his jaw and injuring his inner ear. It traveled through his body, creating long-term damage to his kidney, and finally exiting through his right foot.

A year later, he was standing about 6 feet from another tree in his back yard when lightning stuck. The jolt blew him off his feet and knocked him unconscious for a few minutes. He suffered no major injuries.

Since then, Sauers has cut down all the remaining trees in his back yard, and now, when he hears thunder, he doesn't hesitate to act quickly. "I get inside right away. I hear thunder and poof -- I'm gone. It's looking for me." Video Health Minute: Staying safe in a storm »

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The National Weather Service says lightning is the second-leading cause of weather-related deaths in the United States, right behind flooding. Yet Lans Rothfusz, the chief NWS meteorologist in Peachtree City, Georgia, believes people don't think they're at risk. "The odds of winning the lottery are roughly one in 15 million, and everybody thinks they're going to win the lottery. So you have to put it in context and realize that one in 400,000 means there's a pretty good chance of getting hit, especially when you're outside."

Lightning is a constant threat from spring through fall no matter where you live. There is a "double peak" in severe weather in the U.S., Rothfusz said. The worst thunderstorms, along with hail, peak in the springtime, but fall -- especially October -- is considered the second peak. Southern states may get the brunt of thunderstorms in the fall.

Experts suggest the safest place to be during a thunderstorm is inside a large, enclosed building. Small outdoor shelters, dugouts or sheds do not offer the same protection. Interactive explainer: lightning safety tips »

A hard-topped vehicle is a safe place during a storm, but make sure all doors and windows are closed, and don't touch any metal surfaces.

As a last resort, the NWS says, if you're stranded outdoors during a thunderstorm, find a low-lying area. Squat low to the ground, tuck your head and touch the ground as little as possible. "You want to be in a place where you're not the tallest object," Rothfusz said.

He urges people to pay attention to changing weather patterns and follow the 30-30 rule: "If you see that flash of lightning and hear a rumble of thunder within 30 seconds, you're at risk of getting hit by lightning. ... Thirty minutes after the last rumble of thunder, it's safe to go outside."

While inside, he recommends staying off corded phones and other electronics, including computers, and refraining from taking a shower or washing dishes. "These are things that put you at greater risk of getting hit by lightning or feeling the effects."

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If your house gets hit by lightning, the electrical charge can be carried through metal pipes and appliance cords or cables. Lightning tends to travel through water, so people taking a shower, bath or washing their hands can be injured or killed by the electrical charge, he said.

Sauers says that the first time he was hit by lightning, there was blue sky overhead and clouds in the distance. He's done taking chances in thunderstorms. "When I hear thunder, I'm gone -- and people get away from me." E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

Judy Fortin is a correspondent with CNN Medical News.

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