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In wake of 19th lightning death in US, experts share tips to stay safe

Lightning strikes can be swift, unexpected — and deadly. To date, there have been 19 lightning-related fatalities in the United States so far this year.

If you find yourself caught in a thunderstorm, is there anything you can do to stay safe? The answer is yes, TODAY national investigative correspondent Jeff Rossen has found. Rossen spent time at the Bonneville Power Administration’s high-voltage test lab and learned how dangerous lightning can be and how important it is to stay safe. Some tips:

  • At the first clap of thunder, seek shelter. Stay inside for 30 minutes after you hear the last clap of thunder.
  • If you’re not located near a building, get inside a vehicle. It’s safer to be inside your car than to be outside during a storm.
  • Don’t stand under trees. That could increase your risk of being struck.
  • Move to the lowest elevation possible and stay low.

At the BPA’s high-voltage test lab, which is run by the federal government, Rossen witnessed the work of a giant machine that actually creates lightning.

“It is literally so loud, it’s like a shotgun going off right next to your ear,” Rossen said during his tour of the lab, which simulates and studies lightning in order to keep people and power lines safe and secure.

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Jeff Hildreth, a BPA electrical engineer, showed Rossen the effects of a lightning strike on two mannequins. The first mannequin bore the brunt of a mild lightning strike, which did visible damage to its face, head, back, body and legs.

“And this was nothing,” Hildreth said. “This was 2 million volts. A real lightning bolt can have 100 million to up to a billion volts.”

The second mannequin sustained even more damage.

“You can actually see the path of the lightning bolt here — I mean, it started on his head, went all the way down, burned right through his shirt, through to his body and down to his knees,” Rossen observed. “Could you survive this?”

“I don't know, but remember, this is a mannequin,” Hildreth replied. “So if this had been a real person, this would have been flesh here, this would have been hair — on fire — and so this would have been a terrible injury if not death.”

Hildreth said one factor that makes lightning so dangerous is its unpredictability.

“It wants to travel to the ground in the fastest possible way, but not always the route you’d expect,” he explained. “You can have stray bolts.”

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Editor's note: This story was originally published on July 30, 2014. It has since been updated to reflect the number of lightning related deaths in the U.S. in 2015.