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Look Out for Lightning!: High-Tech or Old-Fashioned, Vigilance, Common Sense Are Keys to Avoiding Strikes

June 22, 2008

By Jennifer Barrios, Newsday, Melville, N.Y.

Jun. 22–The private Shinnecock Hills Golf Club in Southampton has a lightning detection system, complete with atmospheric sensors and sirens.

The public Bethpage State Park golf course relies on slightly older technology — weather reports.

Either way, both courses aim to protect their golfers against one of the scourges of summer: lightning.

Today is the start of National Lightning Safety Awareness Week (yes, there is such a week, now in its seventh year), and it’s not just golfers who should be wary. Lightning can be deadly, although fatalities are rare. In the past 10 years, eight people have been killed by lightning in New York.

Thousands of music fans got an up-close look at lightning last weekend when a bolt struck the amphitheater at Jones Beach, forcing its evacuation. A lightning strike also apparently knocked out Nassau’s 911 system for 20 minutes and ignited a fire at a school in Massapequa Park. And lightning is possible today, tomorrow and Tuesday as thunderstorms are in the forecast.

“Lightning is a giant spark,” said Earle Williams, a physical meteorologist with expertise in lightning at MIT. “It’s an electrical discharge that involves very hot channels.”

The giant spark occurs when a cold front moves into an area of warm weather, which explains why lightning is often seen during summer showers.

Of the several different types of lightning, one of the most dangerous is cloud-to-ground, during which a bolt of electricity stretches from a thundercloud to a point on the ground.

Thunder is simply the sound the lightning makes, which travels slower than the light does, Williams said.

“One of the things we always say to people is, if you can hear thunder, you can be struck by lightning,” said Brian Ciemnecki, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Upton.

Lightning gravitates toward high points on the earth, which explains why the Empire State Building is such a frequent target. But people — especially golfers swinging metal clubs in an open field — must be wary, too.

Jeff Bors, an assistant professional at the Shinnecock Hills, said that the club’s detection system sounds an alarm when an electrical storm is within five miles. Most of the time, people return to the clubhouse or seek refuge in one of the club’s scattered lightning shelters.

“A lot of people think they’re better than the weatherman or better than the technology, and they’ll keep playing,” Bors said. “But 95 percent or more very much respect it and respect the weather and respect the danger of lightning.”

Many businesses and most private homes on Long Island do not have lightning protection devices, not even lightning rods, which direct the current away from a building so it can be safely dissipated into the ground.

John Blun, president of Secure Tech Electric in Hauppauge, which installs lightning protection systems, said the demand is usually for larger office buildings and high-end homes.

“It’s a relatively expensive cost to incur, and the average homeowners are struggling to pay utility bills,” Blun said.

When lightning’s overhead…

Stay indoors. Keep away from windows and doors, don’t talk on corded phones, unplug the PC and don’t take a bath or shower.

If you’re

outside, try to get into a large building or at least a car with its windows rolled up. Avoid metal objects. Do not seek shelter under large trees, as they can be targets of lightning.

If you are

outside amid lightning strikes, hunch down and compact your body into a ball. Earle Williams, a lightning expert at MIT, recommends that you keep one foot off the ground so as not to conduct electricity through your body should lightning strike the ground near you.

It’s safe if about 30 minutes have passed since the last thunderclap. Experts say that if you can hear thunder, you can be in danger from lightning.

Sources: National Weather Service, Earle Williams of MIT

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Copyright (c) 2008, Newsday, Melville, N.Y.

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