Lightning Strikes: How To Stay Safe At Outdoor Events

A pine tree remains standing albeit with some pieces of bark stripped from its surface after dual lightning strikes hit a PGA golf tournament over the weekend, including one strike that hit the tree.

Six fans were sheltering from extreme weather under the tree when they were injured at the Atlanta golf course hosting the tournament after being hit by falling debris from the same tree they sought refuge under. All the injured fans had since been released from the hospital and officials deemed the tree safe.

Extreme weather disrupting sporting and other outdoor events is not at all uncommon. Organizers usually have plans in place to alert guests to impending weather and to evacuate and remove them from harm’s way. However, mass panic that at times ensues in such situations makes the process less than orderly.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, lightning is the most frequent weather hazard affecting athletic events. As part of an action plan to deal with such events, the CDC says venues should have an evacuation plan, a person monitoring weather forecasts and a safe shelter.

During a lightning strike, officials caution not to shelter under a tree, saying it’s the second leading cause of lightning casualties.

How To Stay Safe When Lightning Hits

Patch reached out to the National Weather Service’s lightning safety expert, Jeff Peters, who provided us with a list of tips for both fans and recommendations for outdoor venues:

In Atlanta on Saturday, Mark Russell, the PGA Tour’s vice president of rules and competitions, explained that there is a meteorologist on site monitoring for thunderstorms. Officials were aware of the potential for so-called “pop-up thunderstorms.”

“We have a meteorologist on site. We can monitor that,” Russell told The Associated Press. “And a lot of times, we get lucky and we don’t get hit with thunderstorms, especially when it’s a situation when they’re pop-ups like that.”

When play is suspended, Russell said fans are encouraged to take shelter anywhere they can find it. Organizers also opened up hospitality areas for fans.

“You’ve got a lot of people, and you have to do that quickly, and sometimes people don’t take shelter,” Russell told the AP.

In May, there was a similar scene as lightning struck a tree on the golf course at the Country Club of Charleston. The flash came during a weather delay at the U.S. Women’s Open.

PGA Tour-sanctioned events have not had a death from lightning since the summer of 1991.

Peters told Patch that the occurrence of lightning is random so it’s best to be prepared in any situation.

In cases where people can have advanced warning and seek shelter before the storms, Peters said their chances of being struck by lightning is lowered. But lightning can strike when it isn’t raining, between 5-10 miles away from the storm cloud and can strike as storms depart. Peters said that’s why the NWS recommends people wait 30 minutes after the last rumble of thunder before going outside.

The National Weather Service has a voluntary recognition program in place for outdoor arenas that take steps outlined by the agency to better protect against lightning and other extreme weather like thunderstorms and tornadoes. Patch reached out to the NWS to see if the agency had a list of the venues that comply with the program but officials were unable to answer.

Plans to evacuate venues don’t always go smoothly. In early June, the Governors Ball — an annual music festival held on Randall’s Island in New York City — had to be evacuated when severe weather struck the city. Organizers ordered attendees to evacuate the park at 9:35 p.m. as rain pounded on the event’s third and final day. The evacuation came after the festival’s opening was already delayed to 6:30 p.m. that evening.

Attendees were less than pleased at how the evacuation went.

“The frustration is NOT about the weather. It’s about the planning,” Instagram user Bizzy Bahdee wrote in a comment. “The forecast was ALWAYS predicting the showers as a higher probability later in the day. It would have been a better decision to push all the shows EARLY rather than to push it later.”

“So Governors Ball ended the way ‘Jurassic Park’ began. Real solid emergency evacuation plan there, @GovBallNYC,” Randall P Savage III posted on Twitter, along with a video of a drenched crowd. “We could all tell how important our safety really was.”

Lightning Deaths In U.S.

In 2019 so far, there have been 13 lightning-related deaths in the U.S.

Between 2006-2018, there have been just under 400 lightning-related deaths in the U.S. An analysis by the National Lightning Safety Council shows that fishermen accounted for more than three times as many deaths as golfers. Moreover, those who were outdoors or camping accounted for twice as many deaths as golf. In all, there were 10 golf-related lightning death in the 13-year period. Among sports related-lightning deaths, golf had the second highest number of deaths with the leading sport being soccer that had 12 deaths. The NWS concluded that the common belief that golfers are responsible for the greatest number of lightning deaths is a myth.

The analysis also concluded that men are more likely to be struck by lightning than women.

The analysis highlighted the importance of getting to safety immediately when there is a threat of a lightning strike.

“The inability and unwillingness to get to a safe place in a timely manner both contribute to many
lightning fatalities,” the analysis said. “Many people wait far too long to start heading to safety, and that puts them in a dangerous and potentially deadly situation.”

Since in some situations, it takes longer to get to safety, it is imperative that those in charge of the events monitor conditions so that everyone can seek shelter at the first sign of a developing storm.

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