Sun-Herald.com

Lightning dangers loom this week


ARCADIA -- Chances are good that a clap of thunder woke you up early Sunday morning.

A line of severe thunderstorms moved down the Florida peninsula overnight, setting off frequent lightning and dropping nearly an inch of rain in many areas of Southwest Florida. Winds gusted above 30 mph.

It was a preview of coming attractions.

According to the National Weather Service, there's a chance of rain every day this week except today, which should be sunny and 85 degrees. Wednesday, Thursday and Friday will have 20 to 30 percent chances of rain.

But it's more than just rain the service calls for. The tropical atmosphere where we're located is clashing with cooler air masses still tracking through the state.

The result is an atmospheric volatility that generates thunderstorms.

And they're dangerous.

Florida leads the nation in lightning victims -- about 50 a year.

About one in 10 strike victims will die. From 1959 to 2001, DeSoto had three fatalities, Sarasota had four and Charlotte had five.

Worsening matters is the fact that this part of Florida is known as the lightning capital of the United States. The most frequent thunderstorms are found in a north-south oval from Central Florida to Lake Okeechobee.

Parts of DeSoto County are in that oval and experience more than 100 thunderstorms each year; western DeSoto, Charlotte and Sarasota counties have slightly fewer, about 90 to 100.

And expect about 50 lightning strikes on every square mile in this area each year.

While residents here now have a healthy respect for hurricanes after what Charley, Frances and Jeanne did last summer, the fact is that lightning annually kills more people on average than any hazard except floods. More than tornadoes. More than hurricanes.

And it's a far more frequent hazard.

As summer approaches, thunderstorms will become regular, until by July they will be a daily event. Sea breezes from the Atlantic and the Gulf collide over Central Florida and from that event come the towering clouds that produce thunderstorms.

Statistics tell us that a person most likely to be hit by lightning is golfing on a Florida course at 4 p.m. on a Sunday in July.

But no month is safe from the threat of severe thunderstorms. They can, and do, occur every month of the year here. Of particular concern this time of year is lightning's potential to set forest fires.

Each year, more than 10,000 forest fire origins are attributed to lightning.

The good news for Florida firefighters is that this area, so far this year, is a sopping six inches above expected rainfall amounts. The ground is wetter, thus slowing the spread of any fire that starts in hurricane-broken woods or forests.

If the weather service's forecast holds true for the remainder of the week, more measurable rain is in store for us.

You can e-mail Bob Bowden at bob@sun-herald.com.


By ROBERT BOWDEN

Staff Writer