2013-07-17 / Top News

Dodging lightning

Schools and parks install warning systems to prevent tragedies
BY EVAN WILLIAMS

AT A GROWING NUMBER OF SCHOOLS and parks in Southwest Florida, a 15-second horn blast will warn of a lightning threat, often minutes before the sky turns dark and begins to crackle.

Three shorter five-second blasts will signal “all clear” well after the weather clears.

That’s when most people are killed or injured by lightning — not during, but just before or after a storm, many times when the sky is still sunny and blue, weather and safety experts say.

“Probably the biggest misconception is they think when the storm is overhead, that’s when most victims get hit by lightning, and for the most part that’s not true,” said Collier County EMS Chief Walter Kopka. “The lightning strike victims actually peak before the actual storm comes and after the storm leaves.”

After an 11-year-old boy, Jesse Watlington, was killed by just such a strike nine months ago — a “bolt from the blue” is the common term — Lee County officials fast-tracked hundreds of thousands of dollars for a lightning alert system across its schools and parks.

Charlotte County Public Schools is installing its own lightning alert system this summer, the same type as Lee’s. Officials with Charlotte’s park system are considering a system, but haven’t made a decision.

Collier County Public Schools and the county’s park system use an existing alert network similar to Lee and Charlotte’s, but made by a competing company.

Lee and Charlotte school districts considered such systems before Jesse Watlington was hit at a football practice, but officials in all three counties cited the incident as a reason why the systems are crucial for safety.

“The (Lee County) school board decided after that tragedy they would dip into reserves to pay for the purchase and installation of the Weather- Bug system throughout all of our high schools,” said Ron Davis, Lee County School District principal on assignment for operations.


Florida has more lightning strikes and fatalities than any other state. 
COURTESY PHOTO Florida has more lightning strikes and fatalities than any other state. COURTESY PHOTO In Collier County, where the upfront costs of such a system were paid more than five years ago, the peace of mind it bought was well worth it, said Tim Kutz, administrative director at the Collier school district:

“How do you put a price on what we saw happen last year in Lee County? The technology is available. It makes it difficult not to purchase it and use it to protect your assets, your biggest asset quite honestly, which is our people,” said Mr. Kutz.

Lightning capital

Meanwhile, the Sunshine State continues to be the deadliest and most prodigious lightning producing state in the country, easily earning its other more dubious title, Lightning Capital of the United States.


WeatherBug’s outdoor station is equipped with a wind sensor, rain gauge and lightning sensor. 
COURTESY PHOTO WeatherBug’s outdoor station is equipped with a wind sensor, rain gauge and lightning sensor. COURTESY PHOTO With the highest density of cloudto ground strikes in the U.S. (24.7 per square mile, beating Louisiana’s 19.7, in a 1997 to 2011 analysis by Vaisala Inc.) and a large outdoorsy population, Florida has had more than twice the lightning fatalities of any other state.

Just in June, a Naples construction worker, Robert Wiley, was struck and killed; a Cape Coral man and another man from Bonita Springs were both hit and survived; a Lee County patrol car was zapped and disabled on Interstate 75; and in Charlotte County, lightning hit the city’s wastewater treatment plant, the “probable cause of several computer and instrumentation failures,” a city report said.

What’re the odds?

Between 1959 and 2012, lightning strikes killed 468 people in Florida, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says. Roughly one in 10 people who are struck die. Hundreds of others with injuries, many thought to be unreported, suffer short- and long-term effects to their bodies and nervous systems, from headaches and soreness to trouble concentrating and irritability.

In an analysis of lightning strikes between 2006 and 2012, NOAA says three quarters of fatalities occurred between June and August, the most of all in July.

The chances of your being struck are relatively low in any given year, roughly one in 775,000 to a million, NOAA says. But that figure varies widely depending on your lifestyle and increases dramatically with age. About 1 in 10,000 are struck in an 80-year lifetime.

Every five-second interval between a lightning strike and the thunder it produces indicates the flash was a mile away. Lightning can strike from 10 miles away or more, NOAA says; bolts from the blue have been documented traveling further. While counting can still be used to measure how far away lightning is, you should go inside if you hear thunder. That’s the only safe place other than a car. Huts, cabanas, dugouts, tents and other open shelters aren’t safe.

There’s an app for that

The systems being installed in schools and parks provide warnings before thunder can be heard, offering protection from a “bolt from the blue.”

In Lee County, WeatherBug Total Lightning Network, by a Marylandbased company called Earth Networks, was installed at all 13 high schools and has been up and running since January. This summer, Lee County Parks & Recreation is installing the system at 17 parks.

Besides warning students, athletes and others who use the facilities outside, the program’s online network allows the general public to track lightning in their area and get lightning alerts on their smartphones and other devices through WeatherBug’s free app. It’s “Sparks Alerts” feature “turns your smartphone into a personal lightning detector,” an advertisement reads, “… in real-time, based on data from the WeatherBug lightning detection network.”

Lee schools paid about $130,000 to install the detection systems and horns at its high schools ($10,000 per site). Lee commissioners later approved the $132,644 to install the WeatherBug system this summer at parks, a cost that was offset by using the high school’s existing detection equipment.

“This installation will dramatically minimize potential danger associated with summertime storms and lightning events for our residents and visitors alike,” said Dave Harner, Lee County Parks & Recreation director.

Charlotte County Public Schools plans to have the WeatherBug system installed at three high schools for the start of school in the fall.

Elementary and middle schools receive mobile and online notifications of storms through the high schools’ systems. School leaders also receive text messages warning of an impending storm, said Charlotte school’s spokesperson Mike Riley in an e-mail.

“The system sends out an audible blast and then turns on the lights, which are strategically located throughout the exterior of the school campus,” he wrote. “The lights remain on continuously until an ‘all clear’ is received. Not much different than a typical horn/ strobe fire alarm detection system.”

Competing systems

In Collier County, schools and parks have used a warning system for more than five years by a competitor of WeatherBug, the South Florida company Thor Guard. Its president, Bob Dugan, said school officials in Collier are considering buying a software upgrade that would allow people to track lightning on their devices.

“Say you’re going to a football game at Immokalee High School,” said Mr. Dugan. “You can go online, pick Immokalee High School on your phone, then when you’re out there have the same info the coaches have.”

Thor Guard covers all school facilities along with North Collier Regional Park, Sun-N-Fun Lagoon, Vineyards Community Park and Veterans Community Park.

“It emits a powerful train whistle when lighting is in the area,” said Barry Williams, director of Collier County Parks & Recreation. “It works very effectively. There’s no question in peoples’ minds when it goes off.”

While Charlotte Schools have gone with WeatherBug, officials with Charlotte County Parks & Recreation system have looked at Thor Guard. But county commissioners would have to make a final decision before anything is bought.

“(Lightning) is a reality in Florida, no two ways about it,” said Mike Norton, recreation coordinator for Charlotte County Parks & Recreation. “It’s certainly something we need to take a hard look at.”

Thor Guard boasts that its system “predicts” rather than detects lighting because it measures positive and negative charges in the air. It sounds the alarm eight to 20 minutes before those charges could create lightning.

WeatherBug boasts lightning detectors that can spot not just cloud-toground strikes, but cloud-to-cloud lightning hundreds of miles from a warning site.

Adjusting to the alarms

Lee County public school officials are just becoming familiar with Weather- Bug’s alerts, which started in January. One official said he received 150 notifications on his phone in one day when all 13 high school detection systems were busy.

“I can’t speak highly enough about the system,” said Fort Myers High School Principal David LaRosa, adding that it takes the guesswork out of when to go inside. “The teams hear that alarm go off, they know they’ve have to evacuate the practice field, the game field, whatever it may be.”

If lightning is detected within a 10-mile radius to a WeatherBug system, the alarm is “like a distant loud car horn,” and strobe lights flash. At the same time, WeatherBug sends alerts to its public app and directly to officials.

Principal LaRosa said he uses the WeatherBug app to monitor the threat of lightning near his home in South Fort Myers before he goes for a run. He heard the horn go off at Estero High School while he was attending a middle school track meet.

“I’m going to be honest with you, the skies were clear, but that horn went off so the stadium had to be evacuated,” he said. “Everybody was questioning why they were evacuating when there were clear skies. It was probably 15 minutes after that there was a big bolt of lightning that went across the sky.”

After the horn goes off, the system automatically waits 30 minutes before sounding the all clear. Officials or app users can watch the 30-minute clock.

The device will keep resetting the 30-minute clock anytime it picks up more lighting happening within the 10 miles radius. As a result, the middle school track meet ended up being delayed 90 minutes.

“In prior years, we would have played those games and endangered everyone in the stands and in the fields and everybody walking to the car,” said Mr. Davis with the School District of Lee County. He added that people should expect some delays when the horns sound.

Neighborhoods near school or park systems will also hear the alarms. Fort Myers High School sits on the edge of a residential neighborhood near the Edison & Ford Winter Estates.

“I’ve let the neighborhood association over there know and I told them you’re going to hear this horn go off. If your children are out playing, you need to get them inside,” Principal LaRosa said. “It’s really been a positive for the whole neighborhood in regards to safety and lightning.” ¦

Lightning deaths, injuries and property damage from Jan. 1, 1996 to March 31, 2013

>> Lee County: nine deaths, 12 injuries, $2.3
million in property damage
>> Charlotte: two deaths, 13 injuries,
$742,000 in property damage.
>> Collier: three deaths, 16 injuries,
$743,600 in property damage.
>> Hendry: one death, three injuries
>> Glades: one death, one injury, $20,000 in
property damage

— Source: NOAA’s National Climatic Data Center, Storm Events Database.

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