Did you know that Mexico has the highest fatalities due to a lightning strike in all of North, Central and South America? Mexico averages 220 deaths per year. At least 7,300 people were killed by lightning strikes in Mexico between 1979 and 2011. More than 45% of the deaths were young males between 10 and 19 years of age and most strikes happen the first half of the rainy season, between June and August. The state of Guanajuato, where we live, has the fourth highest death count. And as we have a son in the high-risk age category, these statistics trouble me.
According to researchers, this extraordinarily high number of deaths due to lightning strikes is not an equal opportunity phenomenon. “Fatalities largely depend on socio-economic factors and not the frequency of lightning strikes,” said Ronald Holle, a global lightning expert at Vaisala Inc in Arizona.
Take for example the unfortunate lightning strike that killed 7 and injured two in a farming community near the towns of Mesa Cuata and El Terrero in Guanajuato state. Three female farm workers, ages 19, 32 and 44 were killed along with four children ages 3, 5, and 14. All were struck while working out in an unsheltered field. Many houses in Mexico, including those in La Yacata, do not have electricity or indoor plumbing, two ways that lightning can be channeled harmlessly to the ground. Houses made of adobe often do not even have metal rebar built into their structures which can also divert lightning strikes.
So what can be done to maximize your survival during a lightning storm?
Take shelter. No place is safe outside in a thunderstorm. My grandmother always made us come inside from the porch during storms, but that’s not something generally done here in Mexico.
The shelter should be a building that has electricity, phone lines or plumbing. The electric, telephone or plumbing lines will attract the lightning and channel it. But wait! La Yacata has no electricity or phone lines and although we have plumbing, our tubes are mostly plastic. Fortunately, lightning can travel through any metal wires or bars in concrete walls or flooring and that we have plenty of. (See Up on the roof that nearly wasn’t)
If you take shelter in a vehicle, it must be a vehicle with a metal roof and sides. The metal will divert the lightning around you. If the vehicle has no roof, like a motorcycle, or is made of fiberglass, it is not a safe vehicle in which to take shelter.
If you are already indoors, do not use your phone, computer or other electrical equipment. No problem in La Yacata! (See La Yacata still has no electricity) Stay away from sinks, baths, and faucets. Stay off porches (Thanks, Grandma!). Stay away from windows and doors. Do not lie on concrete floors or lean against concrete walls.
If you are outside and can not reach adequate shelter, move away from hills, mountain ridges, and peaks. La Yacata is in a valley. Do not lie on the ground. Do not take shelter under a tree or rocky overhang. There aren’t too many trees in La Yacata and the rocky overhangs typically are already occupied with skunk or fox dens. Get away from ponds, lakes, pools and other bodies of water. Again, no problem in La Yacata as there is no natural water source.(See Water Woes) (See Also Lightning Strike kills 2 in Playa del Carmen) Stay away from barbed wire fences, power lines, windmills, silos or other objects that may attract the lightning. There are several lots that have barbed wire, but it is easy to avoid those areas.
Stay away from areas that have already been struck by lightning. Lightning can strike twice and often will. Even if it is not raining, if you can hear thunder, you are at risk for a lightning strike. Lightning can strike from 10 to 15 miles from a thunderstorm. Anvil lightning can strike over 50 miles from thunderstorms.
So there you have it!
Knowing these simple facts will help you survive a lightning strike–in La Yacata or wherever you are.