Best Ideas for Surviving
Thunderstorm Disasters...

What are the Characteristics of a Thunderstorm?

Developing Thunderstorm

All thunderstorms are dangerous. Every thunderstorm produces lightning. (That’s where the thunder comes from). In the United States, an average of 300 people are injured and 80 people are killed each year by lightning. Although most lightning victims survive, people struck by lightning often report a variety of long-term, debilitating symptoms. Other associated dangers of thunderstorms include tornadoes, strong winds, microbursts, hail, and flash flooding. Flash flooding is responsible for more fatalities—more than 140 annually—than any other thunderstorm-associated hazard.

Dry thunderstorms that do not produce rain that reaches the ground are most prevalent in the western United States. Falling raindrops evaporate, but lightning can still reach the ground and can start wildfires.

Especially in the deserts of the Southwest, there is a part of a thunderstorm called a “microburst”. A microburst is a very localized column of sinking air, producing damaging divergent and straight-line winds at the surface that are similar to but distinguishable from tornadoes which generally have convergent damage.

There are two types of micro bursts: wet micro bursts and dry micro bursts. They go through three stages in their life cycle: the downburst, outburst,and cushion stages. The scale and suddenness of a microburst makes it a great danger to any size of aircraft due to the low-level wind shear caused by its gust front, with several fatal crashes having been attributed to the phenomenon over the past several decades.

A microburst often has high winds that can knock over fully grown trees, long lines of power poles, and raise total havoc on an airfield with unsheltered, small aircraft. These bursts usually last for only a couple of seconds.

Microburst Tree Destruction

Damaging winds from thunderstorms can come in two forms; tornadoes or straight line winds. We'll focus on tornadoes seperately page, but here, we want to look at these straight line winds. When the temperature gets above 85-90 degrees and it's muggy out, it's time to start paying attention to the skies. These thunderstorms in the summer frequently cause a phenomena called a Microburst. It's these Microbursts that create the damaging and very dangerous straight line winds. Picture it as someone taking a bucket of water and dumping it straight onto the ground. It spreads out in all directions. This is what a Microburst does. Generally speaking, the winds come directly out of the bottom of the storm onto the ground and spreads out in all directions. Snapped and uprooted trees are very common with straight line wind damage.

Feasibility of Thunderstorms Occurring in Your Area

Thunderstorms occur pretty much anywhere in the U.S. where rain occurs. On some occasions, thunder can even accompany snowstorms in the west.

Your local weather stations on radio and TV are typically the easiest and best sources to keep you aware of thunderstorm activity, intensity,direction, implications, and duration. The National Weather Service on the internet is also another good source of information.

What Usually Happens When a Thunderstorm Develops?

Facts About Thunderstorms:

Thunderstorms can cause damage in four basic ways depending on their strength and duration:

1. Wind, Dust Storms, and/or Tornados

Thunderstorm Wind Damage

2. Rain, Flooding, and/or Mudslides

Flooding and Mudslide

3. Ice Hailstones

Thunderstorm Hailstones

4. Lightning

Lightning and Thunder

Thunderstorms come in a variety of forms:

  • They may occur singly, in clusters, or in lines.

  • Some of the most severe occur when a single thunderstorm affects one location for an extended time.

  • Thunderstorms typically produce heavy rain for a brief period, anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour.

  • Warm, humid conditions are highly favorable for thunderstorm development. The more humidity and heat that occurs gives rise to a greater chance for hail.

  • About 10 percent of thunderstorms are classified as severe—one that produces hail at least three-quarters of an inch in diameter, has winds of 58 miles per hour or higher, or produces a tornado.

Facts About Lightning

  • Lightning’s unpredictability increases the risk to individuals and property.

  • Lightning often strikes outside of heavy rain and may occur as far as 10 miles away from any rainfall.

  • "Heat lightning" is actually lightning from a thunderstorm too far away for thunder to be heard. However, the storm may be moving in your direction!

  • Most lightning deaths and injuries occur when people are caught outdoors in the summer months during the afternoon and evening.

  • Your chances of being struck by lightning are estimated to be 1 in 600,000, but could be reduced even further by following safety precautions.

  • Lightning strike victims carry no electrical charge in their bodies and should be attended to immediately.

  • Water is an excellent conductor of electricity. Even the beach will carry a lightening charge to your body when in contact with the wet sand.

Surviving Thunderstorm Disasters by Pre-Planning and Prep...

To prepare for a thunderstorm, you should do the following:

  • Remove dead or rotting trees and branches that could fall and cause injury or damage during a severe thunderstorm.

  • "If thunder roars, go indoors" because no place outside is safe when lightning is in the area. Everyone should stay indoors until 30 minutes has passed after they hear the last clap of thunder.

  • If you are in an open field or on a lake in a boat, seek shelter within a number of trees or buildings higher than you and get off any body of water. Since lightening can strike as far as 10 miles away, being on the water make you the highest, most likely target.

Summary of Lightning Safety Tips for Inside the Home

  • Avoid contact with corded, land phones.

  • Avoid contact with electrical equipment or cords. If you plan to unplug any electronic equipment, do so well before the storm arrives. Expensive electronic equipment like TV’s, stereo systems, and computers are good candidates unless they are connected to a quality surge protector.

  • Avoid contact with plumbing. Do not wash your hands, do not take a shower, do not wash dishes, and do not do laundry.

  • Stay away from windows and doors, and stay off porches.

  • Do not lie on concrete floors and do not lean against concrete walls.

  • If you have a backup generator that provides backup, temporary power for your home, prepare it for use. Some systems go on automatically and so fast that computers and TV’s will not even notice loss of grid power.

The following are guidelines for what you should do if a thunderstorm is likely in your area:

  • Postpone outdoor activities especially swimming, golfing, and boat fishing.

  • Get inside a home, building, or hard top automobile (not a convertible). Although you may be injured if lightning strikes your car, you are much safer inside a vehicle than outside.

  • Remember, rubber-soled shoes and rubber tires provide NO protection from lightning. However, the steel frame of a hard-topped vehicle provides increased protection if you are not touching metal.

  • Secure outdoor objects that could blow away or cause damage.

  • Shutter windows and secure outside doors. If shutters are not available, close window blinds, shades, or curtains.

  • Avoid showering or bathing. Plumbing and bathroom fixtures can conduct electricity.

  • Use a corded telephone only for emergencies. Cordless and cellular telephones are safe to use.

  • Turn off air conditioners. Power surges from lightning can cause serious damage.

  • Use your battery-operated NOAA Weather Radio for updates from local officials.

Avoid the following:

  • Natural lightning rods such as a tall, isolated tree in an open area.

  • Hilltops, open fields, the beach, or a boat on the water.

  • Isolated sheds or other small structures in open areas.

  • Anything metal—tractors, farm equipment, motorcycles, golf carts, golf clubs, and bicycles.

What to do during a Thunderstorm

If you are:


In a forest

Seek shelter in a low area under a thick growth of small trees.

In an open area

Go to a low place such as a ravine or valley. Be alert for flash floods.

On open water

Get to land and find shelter immediately.

Anywhere you feel your hair stand on end (which indicates that lightning is about to strike)

Squat low to the ground on the balls of your feet. Place your hands over your ears and your head between your knees. Make yourself the smallest target possible and minimize your contact to the ground. DO NOT lie flat on the ground.

Actions to Take After Surviving a Thunderstorm Disaster

Call 9-1-1 for medical assistance as soon as possible if anyone is injured.

The following are things you should check when you attempt to give aid to a victim of lightning:

  • Breathing - if breathing has stopped, begin mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.

  • Heartbeat - if the heart has stopped, administer CPR.

  • If both breathing and heartbeat has stopped, administer chest compressions since blood circulation is now considered most important until help arrives.

  • Pulse - if the victim has a pulse and is breathing, look for other possible injuries. Check for burns where the lightning entered and left the body. Also be alert for nervous system damage, broken bones, and loss of hearing and eyesight.

  • Check for burns in two places. The injured person has received an electrical shock and may be burned, both where they were struck and where the electricity left their body. Being struck by lightning can also cause nervous system damage, broken bones, and loss of hearing or eyesight. People struck by lightning carry no electrical charge that can shock other people, and they can be handled safely.

    Additional Resources for Surviving Thunderstorm Disasters.

    Familiarize yourself with these terms to help identify a thunderstorm hazard:

    Severe Thunderstorm Watch
    Tells you when and where severe thunderstorms are likely to occur. Watch the sky and stay tuned to NOAA Weather Radio, commercial radio, or television for information.

    Severe Thunderstorm Warning
    Issued when severe weather has been reported by spotters or indicated by radar. Warnings indicate imminent danger to life and property to those in the path of the storm.

    Historical Notes on Surviving Thunderstorm Disasters:

    None to date.


    The content of this guide is in the public domain. Requested attribution is as follows:


    From: Talking About Disaster: Guide for Standard Messages. Produced by the National Disaster Education Coalition, Washington, D.C., 1999.


    American Red Cross:


    Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA):


    National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency (NOAA) and their National Weather Service.



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