Summer thunderstorm, lightning season returns to Florida

June 26, 2014 

Last Thursday was a typical day at work for Trey Archer, a wheelchair attendant at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport. He had just finished helping an elderly woman off a flight when lightning struck near the plane. Archer was standing in the doorway — his right foot in the doorway, his left foot on the jetway.

He remembers a flash, followed by a big bang.

“I felt a warm feeling coming down on the back part of my head, going towards my neck area,” Archer said. His vision was blurry, he couldn’t hear anything, and his head hurt. He tried to run, but his legs gave out and he fell down. “I’ve never felt anything like that before.”

At the hospital, doctors told him that he caught a back charge from the lightning. They said he was lucky: if the plane hadn’t been there, he would have been hit by the full force of the lightning. One doctor told him to kiss the aircraft — it had saved his life.

Just this month, lightning brought an international soccer game to a halt, carved out a hole in the tarmac at Miami International Airport, burned down a house and nearly hit Archer and another airport worker at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport. The past few weeks and the forecast for the next one are proof enough: Miami’s storm season is here again.

Christened the lightning capital of the United States, Florida sees thunderstorms and lightning nearly every day from late May to late October. Florida’s geography is conducive to storm development, as sea breezes from the Caribbean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean combine with muggy summer weather to produce showers and thunderstorms.

Though lightning strikes are the second-largest cause of national weather-related deaths nationally, in the past 10 years only two people in Miami-Dade County were directly killed by lightning, according to the county’s medical examiner’s office. Both of those deaths — one in 2007 and one in 2009 — occurred outdoors during a thunderstorm. In Florida, lightning injures as many as five people every summer, according to the National Weather Service.

The service encourages people to seek shelter during a thunderstorm, particularly when they hear thunder, and to stay there for half an hour after a storm passes. If shelter can’t be found, people should avoid elevated areas, isolated trees and bodies of water. While the service doesn’t issue warnings for particular areas of lightning, it does issue warnings for severe thunderstorms.

What is seen as lightning is actually the transfer of electricity between the negatively charged base of a storm cloud and the positively charged ground. Tall objects — such as trees, buildings and mountains — are typically the first to get hit by lightning, because they are closer to the base of the storm cloud. A more rare form of lightning occurs as electricity is transferred between the positively charged top of the storm cloud and the negatively charged ground. Known as positive lightning, it can strike as far as 10 miles from the core of the storm, according to the service.

This could be what happened to Archer, who says it wasn’t raining when he was nearly hit. The lightning came “all of a sudden, out of nowhere.”

Archer has recovered and is waiting for clearance to go back to work. He’s still having nightmares about being hit by lightning, though.

“I just consider myself blessed,” he said.

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