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Every summer New Mexico experiences violent thunderstorms and lightning strikes and averages 17 storms with a 1.1 percent chance of a fatality annually. The state has been ranked at times as number two in the nation for lightning strike deaths.
During National Lightning Awareness Week, which runs through Saturday, the Department of Homeland Security and the National Weather Service are promoting the fact that awareness of the danger posed in lightning strikes just might save one’s life.
“Lightning wants to hit the tallest thing standing,” said Coordinator Phil Taylor of the Los Alamos County Emergency Management Department. “Don’t stand near a single tall tree or a flagpole or other tall, skinny metal object and don’t wave your nine iron in the air in victory on a golf course during a storm.”
The best thing a personwho is caught out in a storm can do is get inside a car or a building, he said.
“Anyone hiking or camping in a forest when a storm hits should hunker down under a shrub and wait it out,” Taylor said.
Most lightning deaths and injuries occur in the summer months during the afternoon and evening when people are caught outdoors with no safe shelter, according to the DHS. A safe shelter is one fully enclosed with a roof, walls and floor, that has plumbing or wiring. A safe vehicle is any fully enclosed, metal-topped vehicle such as a minivan, car, bus or truck. Convertibles, golf carts, open tractors and similar vehicles are not lightning safe.
When there is no safe place outdoors, there are certain precautions and actions that can increase one’s chance of safety and survival. Pay attention to the weather, if a thunderstorm seems imminent and you are outdoors, avoid open areas and fields and the top of a hill or ridge. When camping, set up your camp in a valley, ravine or other low area. A tent offers no protection from lightning. Stay away from water, wet ropes and metal fences and poles. Metal objects and water are excellent conductors of electricity.
If you are inside, stay off corded phones and use a cellular or cordless phone. Unplug electronic equipment before the storm arrives. Don’t take a shower, wash your hands or the dishes and stay away from windows, doors and open porches. Don’t lean against concrete walls.
Also remember to bring pets inside. Doghouses are not safe shelters from lightning and dogs that are chained to trees or poles or wire runners can easily fall victim to a lightning strike.
If you are in a boat on the water, get as low as you can.
New Mexico experienced 697,665 cloud-to-ground flashes in 2008 and 919,554 average flashes from 1996 to 2008, as measured by the National Lightning Detection Network over the land area inside the state border. NLDN findings also show that New Mexico averages 7.6 flashes per square mile per year.