Monday, April 28, 2008
I know it's a bad storm when I am joined in bed by two whining dogs and I know it's a terrible storm when we are further joined by two teenage boys. Living in the Midwest means living with thunder and lightning most of the spring and summer. This morning was a doozy, and we awoke to the news of an apartment house being struck and a church spire in flames from lightning. If I want to be reminded of lightning's destructive power I need only look out my living room window to the scorched skeleton of a once proud ash tree in the forest across the street.
According to National Geographic and the National Lightning Safety Institute, lightning kills more people each year than snowstorms, hurricanes and tornadoes. Only floods cause greater fatalities. Most of us don't take lightning seriously because these deaths occur singularly or occasionally two or three at once. But lightning seems benign compared to say a tornado which looks menacing and sounds like death rolling in. We avoid most deaths in natural disasters because we have early warning systems which help us get to safety quickly. That's why when the tornado sirens go off in our town, we rush to the basement and wait for the all-clear. Yet when we hear thunder, which is nature's early warning system for lightning, we all remain transfixed on the wide open soccer fields as if somehow Mother Nature shouldn't be taken seriously. We live in this imagined cocoon of safety when we are out at a game or a practice. Lightning just can't be that serious a problem. But it is.
Soccer organizations need to develop, maintain, and most importantly, enforce a lightning policy. Just last year Robbie was playing in a game where lightning was ripping between clouds and to the ground all around us, yet the referees kept the game going. I spoke to the AR about halting the game and having everyone seek shelter and his reply was, ""It's not raining, so the lightning isn't that close."" It took a resounding blast into the trees at the end of the field to finally send everyone scattering. It never did rain. These types of misconceptions about lightning and its danger can lead to serious injury or death.
Organizations can purchase lightning detectors which is probably a good idea for the top lightning death states (Florida, Texas, Colorado, North Carolina, and Illinois). These detectors can warn of lightning before it is even seen, and in the states mentioned there were more "first strike" deaths than anywhere else. But, for the most, part nature provides the detector for us in the form of thunder. The National Weather Service motto is: "When Thunder Roars, Go Indoors!" In other words, seek shelter immediately and stay there for at least 30 minutes after the last rumble of thunder is heard. Shelter needs to be an enclosed space. Covered picnic areas or roof overhangs will protect from rain but not from lightning. Buildings and cars with metal roofs are the best shelter. If you find yourself in the middle of a field, make yourself as small as possible. Don't put up an umbrella or stand under a tree unless you are trying to attract lightning. Culverts and ditches can provide some protection from strikes.
Detecting lightning is only half the battle. Organizations need to be willing to put their activities on hold during a lightning storm. All too often practices and games continue despite the very real presence of danger. I know that if a tornado siren went off during a soccer game, it would not be ignored. So we need to be as diligent about lightning as we are about other natural threats.
The problem is that lightning threats occur several times during a year in the same areas, while tornadoes and hurricanes politely restrict themselves to only once or twice in the same area in a year. So lightning becomes an inconvenience for organizations. With a limited amount of time for practices and games, it's a huge nuisance to have to stop everything, delay a game or practice, and then restart. But the threat is real.
Recently several advisories have been posted about anchoring soccer goals because of injuries and deaths occurring when they accidentally fall on a player. But those injuries and deaths are but a sliver of lightning's effects. We need a nationwide, enforced policy for soccer organizations. Referees, coaches and parents need to be on board. When my sons played in their high school state championship two years ago, the game lasted nearly five hours because of lightning delays. Frustrations ran high, but I applauded the referees and the oversight committee for insisting on lightning safety.
We need to do the same everywhere. Whatever policies do exist need to be dusted off and resubmitted to all clubs and organizations. Referees need to be reeducated and charged with enforcing the policies. Coaches need to require that the policies be enforced during games and do so themselves during practices. A lightning safety plan should be prepared for every soccer site so that families know where to go to be safe. In general, players and parents should be encouraged to go sit in their cars so long as they have metal roofs. Parents should pack some playing cards, coloring books, reading books, etc. to while away the time waiting out the storms.
Finally, don't be afraid to speak up if you think lightning safety isn't being followed. I gave the refereeing crew at that game last year a few websites to visit and encouraged them not to let a game get to the point where a tree fifty feet from a player has to be struck before anyone takes lightning seriously. I suspect they will lead the clarion call next storm. Check with your coach to see if he or she is aware of lightning safety and ask that safety measures be enforced. Go to your club board and ask them to check out the following websites to see how serious a problem lightning can be and to ask them to also draft and enforce a lightning safety policy.
We would run to safety if we saw a tornado approaching, or flood waters oozing over a field, or a forest fire blazing a few miles away, so we should do nothing less when we hear thunder and know that lightning lurks nearby. It strikes too fast to jump out of the way – prevention is the only protection.