When we think of thunderstorms, we usually don’t give it as much attention as we would hurricanes, earthquakes, and other types of natural disasters. I believe most people would agree that lighting is fascinating to observe and look at, but their intensity is generally undermined. The truth of the matter is that lightning is extremely dangerous and can cause not only damage to property but more importantly to lives. Roughly 10% of people who get struck by lightning get killed. And out of the survivors, approximately 70% are left with irreversible physical and/or mental damage.
The good news is that there are ways to prevent becoming a target of lightning. We will discuss those here. As with all disasters, it’s important to take the necessary precautions in order to stay safe.
[This is a long article about becoming prepared for severe thunderstorms, so the links in the Table of Contents may help you to navigate through the page. If you don't have much time and want to dive right into the meat of this article, please click here. And don't forget to grab your free checklist at the end!]
Interesting thunderstorm facts
- Worldwide, there are about 3 million lightning strikes every day and about 16 million thunderstorms per year.
- There are about 40 to 50 lightning flashes every second throughout the world.
- Out of all the US states, Texas and Florida typically experience the most lightning strikes annually.
- The Empire State Building is struck by lightning around 25 times every year.
- Lightning bolts can carry 100 million volts or more of electricity and are 5 times hotter than the sun— they heat the air up to 50,000 degrees.
- Lightning kills about 2,000 people every year.
- Ninety percent of people who have gotten struck by lightning survive the event and around seventy percent of them are left with serious life-altering injuries.
- It’s possible to get struck by lightning even if you’re indoors. The majority of indoor lightning injuries are caused by people who were using a phone.
Storm terms you should know
Thunderstorm: Lightning and thunder are always present during a thunderstorm, and oftentimes rain or hail too. A dry thunderstorm is a storm without rain. Thunderstorms are very dangerous because if you’re hit by lightning, the voltage may severely injure or even kill you.
Severe thunderstorm watch: A severe thunderstorm watch is issued when the weather conditions are highly favorable for the development of a severe thunderstorm. A watch helps the public become prepared prior to a coming storm, so they’re not taken by surprise once it develops.
Significant weather advisory: A weather advisory is declared to warn the public of a storm that is approaching. These storms typically bring in large amounts of rain and lightning, winds of under 58 miles per hour (mph), and possibly hail that is smaller than 1 inch in diameter. They are normally non-life-threatening but people should be extra cautious anyway. Significant weather advisories are considered less severe than severe weather warnings. The NOAA is the organization that issues weather advisories so you should stay tuned to their radio for the most up-to-date weather forecast.
Severe thunderstorm warning: A thunderstorm is considered severe if it meets one or both of the following criteria. It has to produce winds of 58 mph or higher and/ or it must produce hail that measures 1 inch in diameter or greater.
Isolated thunderstorm: An isolated thunderstorm is when only 20% or less of a forecasted area will actually experience the effects of the storm (and possible lightning) at any given time. In other words, there’s a small chance that the area you’re in will get
Scattered thunderstorms: During a scattered thunderstorm, the affected area is typically much larger and it’s expected that 30 to 50% of the forecasted area will experience the effects of the storm at the same time. This means that it’s possible that the periods of rain and lightning will last longer (when compared to an isolated thunderstorm).
Current live map of thunderstorms
Technology has advanced in a way that allows us to see where thunderstorms are happening and expected to occur in the near future.
This is another map that shows different layers of the weather, including the direction of the wind, rain, thunder, air pressure, clouds, fog, and many more filters. You can toggle the filters on and off and move the map around or zoom in/ out to view the weather in real-time all over the world.
What to expect during a severe storm
How are thunderstorms forecasted?
Forecasting a storm is a bit complicated but the technology available today has made remarkable progress for meteorologists to determine approaching thunderstorms and determine their severity. At the basic level, meteorologists analyze the air pressure, temperature, and wind speed of any given location. This data is then combined with other information provided by weather balloons, satellites, and radar technology ultimately determining cloud formations, moisture density, weather patterns, and wind observations.
What are the signs of a severe thunderstorm?
Ultimately our goal is to determine quickly whether or not our lives are in danger during the passing of a storm. Some of the following signs are great indicators that the storm will be severe and dangerous. Here’s what you should look out for:
- Feeling a rapid drop in temperature and air pressure. Severe storms form when the warm air from below combines itself with the cold air from above. Feeling the change in temperature means a storm may be approaching rapidly. You can check the air pressure with a barometer if you have one.
- Notice any dark cumulonimbus clouds. These types of clouds are generally low-lying and bring severe weather.
- Feel changes in wind speed. Some storms produce high wind speeds, while others may produce a brief moment of quiet and calm. Either way, be aware of any sudden and abnormal changes in the wind. If in doubt, get indoors right away.
- Do you hear the sound of thunder? In the best conditions, thunder can be heard from as far as 10 miles away. Lightning can also strike the same distance. Let the sound of thunder be your cue to find a safe place of shelter immediately. Keep reading to see which safe places I’m specifically talking about.
- Listen for a loud noise that resembles a freight train— yup, this would be the sound of a tornado approaching! Remember that tornadoes can precede thunderstorms if the circumstances allow for it. For tornado preparedness and shelter tips, check out this page!
- Tune in to the NOAA weather radio or visit their website. NOAA provides the most up-to-date weather watches, advisories, and warnings. Misinterpreting any of the above signs can put your life in great danger. Obey the warnings and find a secure shelter. Your life is too precious- don’t risk it!
Is it safe to drive in a thunderstorm?
Driving in a thunderstorm is not safe. Recently I read a story about a woman in Florida whose car got struck by lightning while she was driving. Immediately, her car came to a halt as the car’s electric system failed. The airbags were deployed and the impact she felt was similar to being in a car accident.
Although her situation was rather unique, it’s not at all unusual. Lightning bolts strike at random, so if you’re driving, it’s best to pull over and wait for the storm to pass. If you’re able to take shelter inside a building, do so. Your car may also be a safe shelter if it has a hard metal top and you’re not touching metal nor electronics.
Speaking of driving, it's not safe to pump gas during a thunderstorm either! You can learn why here.
What are some effects of thunderstorms?
Thunderstorms can wreak havoc in several different ways. Not all thunderstorms are equal, so the extent of damage really varies on the circumstances. In some cases, they bring rainfall which can lead to floods or flash flooding and possible landslides. Other times, they can bring hailstones as large as golf balls, causing extensive physical injury and damage to property. Oftentimes they are accompanied by high winds, which on occasion can result in tornadoes and cause major destruction to infrastructure. Power outages are also common during thunderstorms, as well as fires— both wildfires and home fires are possible when lightning strikes. Unfortunately, like all natural disasters, the most devastating effect of thunderstorms can be the loss of human life. It’s important to be prepared well in advance of a storm, especially if you live in a high-risk area.
Can you prevent lightning?
How to mitigate severe storms
There are several things you can do to reduce possible damage and physical injury caused by a thunderstorm. These tips can help you mitigate the risk.
- Consider the idea of protecting your home with lightning rods. Although lightning tends to strike taller objects, it can actually strike anywhere. Your home and property are vulnerable targets even if they’re not the highest point in your area. If you live in an area prone to thunderstorms, it would be a wise idea to install lightning rods on your roof. These rods may lessen the damage of lightning striking your home because they divert the path of the electric shock from the rod to the ground in a safe manner. Lightning rods are not effective 100% of the time, but they greatly reduce the risk of potential damage. If you’re thinking of investing in this, you should notify your local fire department first.
- Install smoke alarms in your garage and attic. Lightning produces an intense shock of heat that is five times stronger than the surface of the sun…imagine that! If your house gets struck, there’s a chance that it can result in a localized fire. A smoke alarm is essential for detecting fire in its early stages. The attic is especially at risk because it’s a high point in the house where no one spends time in. Without an alarm, you may not see nor smell the fire in such places until it’s too late. This one thing could potentially save your home from partial or complete destruction.
- Maintain the landscaping of your property. Remove dead trees and shrubs from your yard, including overhanging tree branches that are close to the roof. If struck by lightning, a tree can easily catch on fire, and if the conditions are right, it can spread quickly.
- Protect your pets. Thunder and lightning may be scary for animals. If you have outdoor farm animals or pets, make sure to protect their dwelling places in the same way that you protect your home. Trim trees and remove nearby shrubbery from around their shelters and install a lightning rod if there’s a risk that lightning might strike it.
- Develop a family preparedness plan. Teach your children about the hazards that thunderstorms pose in your home and community, and how to respond in a safe manner. Designate a room in the home that would be the safest place for temporary shelter. Discuss a communication and reunification plan. Remember that phone lines may become affected during the storm, thereby making it very difficult to get in touch with loved ones. Determine what procedures you will take (as a family) to get a hold of each other and reunite after a disaster occurs, considering you’re not together. Here you can learn different methods of communication that don’t require the use of a cell phone or internet.
- Build an emergency kit for the home. The kit you put together should include the minimum supplies for survival during the first 72 hours after the storm passes. If you’re able to shelter in place, I recommend stockpiling enough supplies for at least 14 days. This would include potable water, food, and first aid supplies, among other things. Note that heavy rainfall can cause flooding and landslides, so you’ll want to have a bug-out kit prepared in the event that you have to evacuate. Keep reading for more information on putting together an emergency kit that includes all the must-have items to survive a severe thunderstorm.
- Review your homeowner’s or renter’s insurance. Long before an emergency, you should double check your insurance policy to make sure that it covers damage caused by thunderstorms and lightning.
Thunderstorm safety tips
Safety precautions BEFORE severe storms
- Listen to the NOAA radio for storm updates and take any alerts or warnings seriously.
- Lightning may strike in places behind or ahead of the storm. Just because it’s not raining doesn’t mean that you’re not at risk. If a thunderstorm threatens, don’t do outdoor activities.
- Unplug all electronics from the outlets (at least the expensive / high-value ones). If lightning strikes your home, the surge of power may damage any electronics attached to the wall. Even if your home isn’t struck directly, a hit to the distribution grid might cause a power surge that can be strong enough to reach your house. It’s best to unplug all appliances before the storm arrives to ensure that you don’t get shocked and that your electronics don’t get fried.
- Bring in any indoor pets that may be roaming or playing outside. Comfort them during the storm.
- If high winds are expected, make sure to secure any outdoor furniture to the ground so that it doesn’t become flying debris. Move smaller objects indoors, if possible.
- You could fill up your bathtub with water before the storm arrives. [Not recommended for those with small children because of the risk of downing.] This water can later be used for flushing the toilet. The water can also be used for drinking, but remember to purify it first!
Safety precautions DURING severe storms
- You’ve probably heard of the saying, “When thunder roars, go indoors.” If you hear thunder while you’re outdoors, you’re putting yourself at risk of getting struck. Seek shelter immediately and wait for at least 30 minutes (after the last thunder clap you hear) before resuming any outdoor activities. Don’t stand out on the porch either. Try to find an enclosed building or home to take refuge in.
- A car can become a safe shelter but only if it has a hard metal top and all the windows are closed. If you’re inside a car, make sure you’re not touching any metal or electronics/ devices that are plugged into the cigarette lighter or power outlet. [PS. No pumping gas during a thunderstorm either! Here's the why.]
- If you’re in a boat and you see a storm approaching, get to land and find shelter as soon as possible. If you’re in the pool, lake, or beach, get out of the water right away and get inside a building.
- If you cannot find a place of shelter, and being outside is your only option, go to the lowest-lying area as far away as possible from isolated trees, hills, or other tall objects. You should not lie flat on the ground because you don’t want to have direct skin-to-ground contact. Instead, get into a crouching position (hopefully you’re wearing shoes!) Stay away from metal objects, such as picnic tables, fences, bicycles, and even your umbrella.
- Did you know that you can get struck by lightning even if you’re inside a home or building? Although the percentage of people getting struck indoors is significantly smaller, it’s still a possibility. The safest place to be, when indoors, is away from the windows, doors, landline telephones, electronics, the plumbing system, and anything else that conducts electricity.
- Do not be in contact with water during thunderstorms. Water conducts electricity, so taking a shower, washing dishes, doing laundry, or doing any other activity that involves water is considered unsafe. Wait until the storm passes, and then resume what you were doing.
Safety precautions AFTER severe storms
- If your home is struck by lightning, call the fire department to go out and inspect your house for the possibility of fire. Once that’s cleared up, call the electric company to check on your electrical system. Do this before plugging in or turning back on any appliance.
- If someone near you was hit by lightning, call 911 immediately on a cell phone, not a landline phone. Follow the operator’s instructions until help arrives. A person that is struck will not retain the charge, so you can touch them.
- Check on your pets, especially the ones that live outdoors.
- Inspect your home for possible damages. If damages have occurred, make sure to take clear photos so you can show some proof to your insurance company.
- Stay tuned to the NOAA weather radio and local news. There’s a high possibility of flash flooding and landslides after periods of rain, especially intense ones. If flooding becomes a threat, get to higher ground. Never walk or drive through flooded areas because the current can sweep you away.
- Depending on the severity of the storm, you may face power outages. Make sure you’re prepared for that. Follow the tips presented here for more information. Do not get near downed power lines because they may still be charged! Make sure to call the electric company right away and they will take care of it. Meanwhile, warn other passerby's to steer clear.
Thunderstorm preparedness kit must-haves
- NOAA Weather Radio: Whether you buy the radio online or you download the app on your phone, the NOAA weather station is your best bet for updated alerts related to severe storms.
- Download the Storm Shield Severe Weather App: This app tracks your exact location to provide you with the most accurate weather alerts possible.
- Smoke detectors: Install one in your attic, garage, and any other vulnerable room you don’t frequent often. Learn how to choose the best smoke detector for your home here!
- Potable water: During thunderstorms, it’s highly recommended not to touch any part of the plumbing system because water conducts electricity. Having a back-up container of water, whether stored in a box or tank, will assure that you have water for drinking and food prep. If another disaster occurs because of the thunderstorm, such as flooding or tornadoes, wells and the city water may become compromised. Have enough clean water and a method of purification (tablets, bleach, a lifestraw, etc) to last you at least 14 days. Remember to stockpile one gallon of water per person in your household per day.
- Long-term food: Food should be the next most important item in your emergency kit. Just like it’s recommended with food, it would be prudent to stockpile enough food to last your family 14 days. Some buckets, like these ones, are ideal because you don’t have to worry about food spoilage for the next 20 or more years. It gives you the peace of mind you need. Plus, they are made with real ingredients! You don’t have to worry about genetically modified junk. Rest assured that these meals will provide you and your loved ones with the nutrients you need to thrive in times of disaster.
- Method of preparation and plasticware: In order to prepare a hot meal and few cups of coffee, you need a safe heating source. Luckily, we have a solution for you! This stove and fuel kit is convenient because the fuel can be safely used indoors and outdoors without the risk of toxic fumes filling the air. Remember to include plasticware, such as plates, cups, forks, etc, and several black trash bags in your kit as well. These options make cooking easy and clean up even easier!
- A flashlight and batteries: If a severe storm knocks out the power for a while, have a backup light source. This can be a flashlight or a headlamp, whichever you feel is more convenient. Store extra batteries!
- A complete first aid kit: Have a first aid kit accessible with all the basic supplies to take care of any minor injuries. Since emergency response teams might not be readily available immediately after a major disaster, your first aid kit should contain the necessary items to protect wounds until medical personnel is available assist you.
- A bug out kit: If flooding or landslides occur after a severe thunderstorm, you may have to evacuate. Have a bug out kit, or evacuation kit, ready for each member of the household. Remember to include important items for your kids, elderly loved ones and those with disabilities under your care, as well as pets.
- Important documents: The recovery process after a disaster takes time, but it will take much longer if you don’t have copies and proof of your important documents. Check out this post to read about the documents you should protect!
- A toilet and sanitation kit: During a thunderstorm, you risk becoming electrocuted if you’re touching water and/or plumbing fixtures. Do not wash your hands or bathe during the storm. Have other sanitation methods in place for the meantime. Also, in the event of a power outage, your plumbing system may become compromised. Maintaining proper sanitation is key during any disaster. This toilet kit assures that your #1 and #2 are safely disposed of when there’s no running water.
- A fire extinguisher: It’s a good idea to have a few fire extinguishers around your house in case of any emergency, but especially during a thunderstorm. If lightning causes your house, or a tree nearby, to catch on fire, you’ll be the first on the scene to put it out. Call the fire department or 911 for backup assistance of course, but at least do what you can to prevent it from spreading.
Understandably, this post may overwhelm some people because it’s so jam packed with info. BUT since you made it this far, I want to reward you with a free checklist!
During a severe thunderstorm, you won’t need to retain every bit of information presented here but it would be helpful to keep the main points in mind. This checklist can be printed and saved with your emergency kit, that way it’s in a handy location and easily accessible the day you actually need it.
Thunderstorms can cause power outages, fires, flooding, landslides, hail stones, and tornadoes, among other damage. You should become prepared for each of the disasters mentioned, especially if you live in a high-risk area.
- To learn more about power outage preparedness, click here.
- For more information on becoming prepared for floods, click here.
- To learn how to mitigate landslides and stay safe in the event of, click here.
- For tornado preparedness strategies, click here.
Remember to make a communication plan with your family. Here are some ways you can get in touch with your loved ones if your phone or the internet is not working.
Do you have your valuable documents in a safe place? I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to have your documents in the same place (preferably with your evacuation kit) and properly sealed in a waterproof container. This one step will make retrieving any necessary information about your family, property, and insurance quick and easy. With these documents in hand, the recovery process can begin much faster.
Raise awareness on thunderstorm preparedness!
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Forecast Parameters, Weather Types, and Hazards — NOAA / NWS
Isolated vs. Scattered Thunderstorms: What is the difference? — Weather Station Advisor
Lightning — National Geographic
Cool facts about lightning — Cleveland
Thunder and Lightning Facts — Eden
9 Lightning facts that will shock you — Storm Shield App
Flash facts about lightning — National Geographic
Incredible Technology: How to Forecast Severe Storms — Live Science
Lightning Strikes, Stalls Florida Woman’s Moving Car on Interstate — The Weather Channel