"It was like a scene from Jaws," said one observer, describing the rush of panicked swimmers trying to get out of the ocean after a rare lightning strike at Venice Beach, California, tragically left one man dead and 13 others injured on Sunday afternoon. All the injured were either in the water or near the water when the lightning struck.
While cloud-to-ground lightning is a very common occurrence, fatal lightning strikes are pretty rare—an average of 35 people are killed each year in the US. But it's always good to be prepared—especially since being in or near water is at the top of the list of places to not be during a thunderstorm, according to Andrew Murray, a meteorologist and co-founder of OpenSnow.com.
So what do you need to know? First, you should keep up-to-date with your local weather, especially if you're planning to be outside. "Thunderstorms do not occur very often in the LA area and this is what caused the deadly situation," Murray says. "Most people on the beach probably did not know what do when the thunderstorm moved into the area. There was a very good chance because of the large weekend crowds and misinformed public that the people didn't start to leave the beach until it was too late."
Murray knows first-hand of what he speaks. Several years ago he was hit by lightning while out golfing. "It was a very strange tingly feeling and my ears were ringing for a few days because of the thunder clap," he says. "I was lucky it was an indirect strike (where you are affected by the strike, but it doesn't not reach the ground through your body) because a direct strike probably would have killed me."
Which is why it's important to stay informed—no matter what you're doing: "Two-thirds of lightning fatalities happen to people doing leisure activities," says John Jenfeniuf, the lightning safety specialist for the National Weather Service. Fishing, boating and camping are the top three riskiest activities but beaches are next on the list. If you see thunder clouds rolling in or if the sky looks at all threatening, it's best to be safe and head for cover. "A common mistake is trusting blue skies. People need to understand if they can hear thunder, they need to get to safety," Jenfeniuf says, explaining that lightning can strike out 10 miles away from a storm.
Murray advises getting inside a substantial building or metal-topped vehicle, whichever is closer. Oh and you can forget the old myth about lightning never striking the same place twice. If there are thunderstorms in your area, lightning can happen. It's always better to err on the side of safety.