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What happens when lightning strikes -- your car

Vehicles are a relatively safe place, some experts say, as seen in

August 02, 2009|Mike Clary

FORT LAUDERDALE, FLA. — As she headed to the airport to pick up her brother, staying safe in a lightning storm was the last thing on Michelle St. Val's mind.

Although rain threatened, the expressway was dry, St. Val's 2003 Chevrolet Impala was running smoothly, and her son, 4-year-old Mikyal, was belted into the back seat and singing along to his favorite song, the New Boyz's "You're a Jerk."

Then "my car lit up like it was Christmas," said St. Val, 23. The music stopped, Mikyal was showered in glass, and the burgundy Impala was drifting powerless across three lanes of traffic.

"It was a huge boom, and then lightning completely took over the car," St. Val said, recalling the terrifying events of July 24 as she stood beside her damaged car at her Fort Lauderdale, Fla., home. "At first, I thought I had got into an accident."

Houdini-like, Mikyal slipped out of his seat belt and was in the front seat in his mother's lap almost before the car came to a stop. St. Val and a front-seat passenger, a 17-year-old friend, were shaken but uninjured.

Summoned by motorists who stopped to help, a Florida Highway Patrol officer determined that the lightning bolt had struck in the upper-left corner of the rear window -- inches above Mikyal's head -- traveled through the car's frame and exited on the opposite side by blowing a hole in the back tire.

With its electrical system burned out, the car was towed off the road.

"No one was injured at all," said St. Val, a billing specialist at Kaplan University, an online school. "But it was scary. I never thought a storm would choose my car."

Florida is known as one of the world's lightning capitals. Each year an average of 10 people are killed by lightning strikes, and 30 are injured.

So far this year, 24 deaths in the United States have been attributed to lightning, including four in Florida, according to National Weather Service statistics. One of those was a lawn worker in Coral Springs who was struck in June.

As demonstrated by St. Val's experience, cars are a relatively safe place during a storm, some experts say.

"When lightning strikes a car, the frame causes the lightning to go around [passengers], and discharges into the ground," said Chuch Caracozza, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service's Miami office.

But Matt Bragaw, a weather service lightning expert, said strikes on cars are more common than you might think -- and the rubber tires don't keep you safe.

"The metal frame of the car allows the electricity to flow around it," he said. "If you have a convertible car, the lightning will burn right through it."

The safest place to be during a lightning storm is inside a home or building, Bragaw said, but that isn't foolproof. Lightning can travel through the electrical wiring, phone lines, plumbing and even the wire mesh in concrete floors. The weather service urges people to stay off corded phones, turn off electrical appliances and avoid using water.

"Lightning always follows the path of least resistance," Bragaw said. "If the roof is soaking wet from the storm, it is possible it will travel on the roof. . . . You never know where that path will be."

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mclary@sunsentinel.com

Reporter Aiyana Baida and researcher Barbara Hijek contributed to this report.

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