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The only thing to fear...

Andrew Freedman @ 2:45 PM

A friend told me that what you fear the most is what will actually kill you.

By that logic I'm going to die of lightning. Well, either that or disappointment.

When I was in High School I was voted by my peers as "Most Likely to Get Struck by Lightning," a title I've been convinced I'm going to live up to ever since, because it would be a convenient item to put in an obituary. "It's so fitting," my good friend Molly Seamens will be quoted as saying.

Jason Samenow's Sunday Forecast

Nice Day StampSpectacular. High pressure over top of us will promote sunshine and warm temperatures. Temperatures should reach the low 80s, with a light southerly wind. Overnight, it will be mostly clear, with lows 55-60.

Check back tomorrow for the complete week ahead forecast.

My fear and respect for lightning was instilled from an early age, when I memorized weather books and read tales of lightning's indiscriminate assaults. I first encountered the public's stupidity around lightning while swimming at Camp Christopher in eastern Massachusetts. I heard low rumbles of thunder in the distance.

"If you can hear it, clear it," is a cardinal lightning rule, according to the National Lightning Safety Institute, yet my camp counselor, whom I remember as a towering hulk of a man with a pudgy, bloated and pale face and a deformed hand missing a thumb, refused to let us out of the pool.

"You'll be sorry" I said, as tears began flowing along with the storm's first fat raindrops (I was not known at that camp as "Waterworks" for my swimming abilities). Reluctant to take advice from a dorky, scrawny kid whose mom left inspirational notes in his daily lunchbox, he made us stay out there until it started raining heavily. By that point jagged forks of cloud to ground lightning were punishing the heavily wooded camp.

I never went back to that camp. There are other tales of close calls, such as instantaneous "Flash/Bang!" experiences on the summit of Mount Washington in New Hampshire, and once being so moved by others' lightning callousness that I wrote a letter to the editor of my hometown paper criticizing a yacht club for continuing a sailing race in the face of an incoming squall line.

My fear is healthy, considering the facts.

Lightning has consistently ranked as the nation's number two weather killer, behind flooding, and NOAA deems it an "underrated hazard." According to NOAA lightning expert John Jensenius, nationwide this year there have been 36 confirmed lightning deaths and two that are under investigation. Yet people are unbelievably stupid when it comes to lightning safety.

The rule of "if you can hear it, clear it," is often molded into "if you can hear it, but you absolutely need to get from point A to point B and don't want to pay for a cab, then run, instead of walk." Somehow people, especially city dwellers, believe that running will prevent them from getting hit by something intrinsically indiscriminate. It won't. For example, four of the 36 deaths this year involved persons walking to or from a car.

If I were a TV meteorologist I'd have a segment where I'd drive around town during a storm with the window open and camera rolling, castigating anyone walking the streets. I'd narrate: "Look at this lightning loser walking down the street with an umbrella. Doesn't he know that lightning can be hotter than the surface of the sun? He's probably a deadbeat dad behind on child support. I bet he cheated on his wife. And he's a middle manager." I think the segment would go over well as a feel good piece at the end of the newscast.

I'm not scared by the prospect of instantaneous death, because that's so far outside the realm of true understanding that it's rendered comical. What frightens me is lightning's lasting damage, which is the media rarely communicates.

Dr. Mary Ann Cooper of the University of Illinois Chicago has done pioneering work helping lightning victims and lightning education. She helped create NOAA's Lightning Safety Page and is involved in Lightning Safety Awareness Week, held each June. One look at this paragraph on NOAA's lightning safety site, which she contributed to, is chilling.

"Lightning tends to be a nervous system injury and may affect the brain, autonomic nervous system and the peripheral nervous system," the site states. "When the brain is affected, the person often has difficulty with short-term memory, coding new information and accessing old information, multitasking, distractibility, irritability and personality change."

There's more. "Many lightning victims may suffer personality changes because of frontal lobe damage and become quite irritable and easy to anger..."

"Obviously, depression becomes a big problem for people who have changed so much and lost so much. Suicide is something almost all severely injured people have thought about at one time or another."

Scared yet?

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