Respect the Rumble: Teaching Kids About Storm Safety

With the start of summer 2011, storms are definitely on my brain these days, from the tornadoes that ravaged Joplin and other cities across the U.S., to the severe storms that set off the emergency sirens in the Dallas area last week, to Hurricane Katrina—though it’s been almost six years since that tragedy, I was thinking about it this past weekend as our family took a vacation to New Orleans.  It was interesting to hear about the stories of people who had the means to evacuate but chose not to.  My friend who lives there told me that many people had weathered many hurricanes before, and felt like they could do the same again, and didn’t expect things to be as bad as they were.  But isn’t Mother Nature often full of surprises? A resident of Joplin was interviewed after their recent storms.  He said he’d heard the sirens going off, but when he went out of his garage to see if he could see anything bad, and didn’t see anything, he went about doing whatever he was doing.  When the sirens went off again, he finally decided to get everyone in his house to safety, but didn’t have enough time…  Andy often has the same attitude when weather sirens go off in our neighborhood.  Last week when that happened, the girls, dogs and I, plus a few pillows, all crowded into our downstairs bathroom. Andy stayed at his desk, working, and listening to the TV, saying that if there had been a tornado  in our area that we’d have heard about it from the TV news, and the sirens must have been meant for other areas of our large county.  Huh? Can’t tornadoes come up suddenly before the TV even knows about it? If I recall, TV weathercasters give the news about sirens going off after they’ve happened, as in “we have reports that sirens are going off in such and such a place”—doesn’t that indicate that they aren’t on top of everything? (and the choice by one prominent station to continue showing Dancing With the Stars while nearby roofs were getting ripped off buildings should also be a good indicator of TV’s level of concern over weather preparedness…)  The county was already under a tornado warning, which has always meant to me, “Get to a very safe place immediately”, and this was only underscored by the sirens.  But, nothing major happened outside our house that night, and Andy felt vindicated.  I think my kids were confused at the mixed messages we were sending…

Maybe when our travels take us through Joplin in a few weeks they will learn more about tornadoes.  In the meantime, hopefully they will at least remember the mantra  I’ve tried to teach them for many years about lightning:  “If you hear it, fear it, if you see it, flee it.”  A longtime friend passed that on to me.  She knows a lot about lightning.   Back in the late 90s, her husband was playing golf in Florida with his boss and another co-worker when a thunderstorm blew in. Her husband took refuge in the golf cart while his friends stood a few feet away under a tree, holding an umbrella, drinking a beer and joking about their predicament.  A few minutes later and one crackling flash, and my friend’s husband instantly lost two friends, two wives became widows, and three young children lost fathers.  My friend had the heartbreaking job of accompanying the police to inform the families back here in Texas of what had happened. 

A few years later, our next-door-neighbor’s house was hit by lightning, and about seven years later, the very first day Andy ventured into our newly-purchased home to move in some stuff from a storage unit, lightning struck our house. It burnt out the garage door opener, blew out a circuit, and frazzled other electrical wiring, and as Andy says, almost knocked him out of his shoes. I’m so glad he wasn’t operating any power tools at the time and that we hadn’t moved in yet!

So I’ve known someone who’s witnessed death by lightning, another person whose house was struck by it, and my own house has been struck.  Overturning the odds that a lightning encounter is about as rare as winning the lottery? My friend hates that lottery cliché and says that if conditions are right, a strike is much more likely.

For example, you’re at a greater risk of getting hit if you encounter a storm in Florida, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Texas, North Carolina, New York, Ohio, Tennessee, Georgia, and Colorado (information courtesy of NOAA). If you’re near a tree or water when lightning’s around (this includes being in the shower), or outside in wide open spaces, or talking on a corded phone or touching something metal, you’re at an increased risk as well.  Ditto if you can count to 30 or less between seeing the lightning and hearing the thunder, says the National Weather Service.  If that 30 means 30 miles away, that’s not surprising, since lightning has been known to reach that far and in some cases has reached lengths of 80 to over 100 miles.  A “bolt from the blue” can hit you even if there are no clouds and rain in your immediate area.  I’ll never forget a home video I once saw on television of a young girl playing catcher in a softball tournament.  Though there’s a storm in the distance, it’s a sunny day at the softball fields, and as her Dad proudly rolls tape, lightning strikes this precious child.  If I remember correctly, she was brain injured and paralyzed. 

Lightning’s long reach is why weather experts say that at the first glimpse of lightning or hint of distant thunder, that people should take shelter (in the most substantial building they can, or a car with a metal roof and the windows rolled up, or, if nothing else, making yourself as small as possible) and to stay sheltered for 30 minutes after the last rumble. “Typically, people go out and resume activity too quickly and end up getting hit,” said Stephen Hodanish, a senior meteorologist and lightning expert with the National Weather Service in Pueblo, Colorado, when interviewed by nationalgeographic.com.

Little League and other sports organizations nationwide have been taking great pains in getting this word out to coaches and officials so that they will not wait too long to halt games and empty the stands.  (Little League uses a variation of my friend’s mantra: “ If you see if flee it, if you hear it, clear it”.)   I’ve noticed area lifeguards are instructed to clear out pools using the same guidelines, and though sometimes it seems like they are just looking for an excuse to take a break (“Mom, it’s not fair– t
here’s not a cloud in the sky!!!!”), the more I read about lightning strikes, the more I’m glad they do.

Taking weather safety precautions is not about being a worry wort, not about living life in fear, not about crippling society due to too much litigation– it’s just about being smart and recognizing the awesome power of nature, the way things work—the “ways of the universe”.  Is it annoying and inconvenient at times? Yeah, and so were seat belts and bike helmets, but we got used to those and don’t even think twice anymore.  Does it mean you sometimes have to seek shelter with strangers? Yeah, but you just might make some friends in the process, or at least get a good laugh.  I’ll never forget the time I was at a water park with my brother and his family when a storm hit and all park guests were forced to take cover in the gift shop, restaurant, anywhere we could. Yes, we were wet, and yes, it was crowded, and yes, we had to wait awhile, but it was an adventure, and we lived to tell the tale and go to many more water parks.

Really, my greatest fear during bad weather is not the weather itself, but apathy, skepticism and indifference.  As Little League so eloquently puts it in one of their brochures, “People cannot use their lifetime of experience in storms as a gauge for their safety.  Just because you have never been struck does not mean you cannot be.”

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