Lightning Safety: Head indoors when the thunder roars

With technology and common sense, you can stay safe from lightning this spring/summer storm season
A lightning streak across the night sky is one of mother nature's most beautiful shows but it's also her most deadly force.
Published: Mar. 8, 2023 at 6:44 PM EST|Updated: Mar. 9, 2023 at 6:51 AM EST
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RICHMOND, Va. (WWBT) - Lightning can ruin outdoor plans, like swim meets or cookouts, in an instant.

Although we often see lightning before we hear thunder, they happen simultaneously. When static electricity builds up in clouds, it gets released as a huge spark, and the sound you get is thunder. It’s nature’s alarm saying lightning is close enough to hit. Here’s an NWS video on the science behind lightning.

The best phrase to learn is: “When thunder roars, go indoors.”

So where do you go? The safest place is inside a sturdy building. But when you are outside working or having fun, that’s not always easy to do.

Like during summer swim meets. Mike Strycker has been a swim team parent for over a decade and has seen his share of lightning delays. He says it’s up to the lifeguards.

“When they hear something, it’s their call as this is their pool. We’re using it,” said Strycker. “So if they hear thunder, they’re going to blow their whistles, even if it’s right in the middle of a swim meet.”

Although it’s a chaotic dash for the parking lot when lightning is spotted, you are very safe once you get in your car. The metal cage of the vehicle protects the people inside. Click/tap here for an explanation from the NWS.

If heading for shelter isn’t possible, but if lightning is near, a metal vehicle is a right choice.

This graphic from the NWS shows occupants of cars are protected by the metal around them
This graphic from the NWS shows occupants of cars are protected by the metal around them(NWS)

“Parents get a little bit annoyed with it, the kids too. Sometimes there’s like eight or nine kids,” Strycker said. “They’ll all clamor, gather into a van, and they’ll start having fun and playing cards and goofing off and things like that. But when the weather starts to get pretty serious, that’s when they keep the doors will shut, and windows will go up, and people will start taking a little bit more precaution.”

Most pools have a rule: if you see lightning, it’s time to clear the pool deck. But it gets tricky at night during a swim meet. Because the sun is down, the darkness can suddenly reveal the storm that’s 50 miles away.

That’s where our NBC12 weather app can help with free lightning data. You can see where the storm actually is.

> You can find the NBC12 First Alert Weather app in the Apple Store and on Google Play.

“Many times we could have a storm up in Fredericksburg this past season where there is a big storm probably 50, 60 miles away from here, according to your app,” Stryker said. “And the reflection was shown here, and the meet was stopped, and we thought maybe the storm would dissipate and go away. Iit kept on lightning for hours.”

That distant lightning you can see but not hear is called “Heat Lightning” The lightning is making thunder, but it can be so far away that you are still safe.

Tools like our app can help you make smart decisions. But if lightning is within 10 miles, you should seek shelter.

But not at an indoor pool! Although many indoor pools clear the facility if they hear thunder, there’s no need to.

There has never been an electrocution in the United States due to lightning at an indoor pool.