Capri Connection: Lightning – beautiful and powerful

Ann Hall

“We went to a new location to view the Fireworks this year, Sanibel. Parking on the causeway gave us a fabulous view. I experimented this year with the shots to get close details of the beautiful displays created by the explosions of color. As I watch these displays, the 1812 overture constantly plays in my mind along with the sound of BOOOOM,” wrote Jim Hughes, resident of the Isles of Capri to the Coconuttele, Capri’s informal email communication network.

Florida is unofficially known as the Lightning Capital of the World.

This brings to mind the dangers inherent in both man-made “lightning” in the form of fireworks and natural lightning.

Fireworks are illegal in many states around the country and only controlled displays like the one Hughes observed are legal in our area.

“An illegal firework is basically anything that leaves the ground or goes bang,” according to the Collier County Sheriff’s Office. Only professionals who are hired for public displays are allowed to explode fireworks overhead. The reason cited for the rules governing these explosives has to do with injuries, deaths, and damage to wildlife and property.

It is difficult to control man-made lightning displays, but it is impossible to control those sent by natural weather conditions. According to, Collier County is said to be the “lightning capital of the USA.” In fact, they list the top 30 cities in the USA where most lightning strikes, and among them 17 are in the state of Florida.

What causes these phenomena in Florida? A significant sea breeze occurs from late-spring through late-summer thereby creating numerous thunderstorms per day. A very warm, moist tropical climate makes the atmosphere less stable giving way to hot and cold air masses that generate thunderstorms. It is no surprise that with more lightning comes more thunderstorms and therefore more deaths from lightning strikes than anywhere else in the country. Most strike victims are either working or engaged in outdoor recreational activities when struck by lightning.

When my husband and I moved to Florida in 1998, our good friends Dale and Mary Williamson moved here with us. We were unaware that lightning could strike even in the absence of thunder and an observable storm. We were fishing off our seawall one summer afternoon with the Williamson’s when a bolt of lightning came out of nowhere. We heard a loud boom, and felt the hair on our arms rise as we bolted from our chairs and ran towards the house for cover. It appears that our next-door neighbors had a lightning rod on top of their covered dock that had attracted the bolt some 20 feet from where we were sitting. Each of us felt the shock under our feet on the ground. Since that day, we have learned to respect and monitor weather conditions more closely than ever before.

The National Weather Service/National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration provides information to clear up many misconceptions regarding lightning to help residents and visitors alike protect themselves when faced with impeding storms. Their advice is captured in this list of myths and facts published on their website:

Myth: If you're caught outside during a thunderstorm, you should crouch down to reduce your risk of being struck.

Fact: Crouching doesn't make you any safer outdoors. Run to a substantial building or hard topped vehicle. If you are too far to run to one of these options, you have no good alternative. You are not safe anywhere outdoors. See our safety page for tips that may slightly reduce your risk.

Myth: Lightning never strikes the same place twice.

Fact: Lightning often strikes the same place repeatedly, especially if it's a tall, pointy, isolated object. The Empire State Building is hit an average of 23 times a year

Myth: If it’s not raining or there aren’t clouds overhead, you’re safe from lightning.

Fact: Lightning often strikes more than three miles from the center of the thunderstorm, far outside the rain or thunderstorm cloud. “Bolts from the blue” can strike 10-15 miles from the thunderstorm.

Myth: Rubber tires on a car protect you from lightning by insulating you from the ground.

Fact: Most cars are safe from lightning, but it is the metal roof and metal sides that protect you, not the rubber tires. Remember, convertibles, motorcycles, bicycles, open-shelled outdoor recreational vehicles and cars with fiberglass shells offer no protection from lightning. When lightning strikes a vehicle, it goes through the metal frame into the ground. Don't lean on doors during a thunderstorm.

Myth: A lightning victim is electrified. If you touch them, you’ll be electrocuted.

Fact: The human body does not store electricity. It is perfectly safe to touch a lightning victim to give them first aid. This is the most chilling of lightning myths. Imagine if someone died because people were afraid to give CPR.

Myth: If outside in a thunderstorm, you should seek shelter under a tree to stay dry.

Fact: Being underneath a tree is the second leading cause of lightning casualties. Better to get wet than fried.

Myth: If you are in a house, you are 100 percent safe from lightning.

Fact: A house is a safe place to be during a thunderstorm as long as you avoid anything that conducts electricity. This means staying off corded phones, electrical appliances, wires, TV cables, computers, plumbing, metal doors and windows. Windows are hazardous for two reasons: wind generated during a thunderstorm can blow objects into the window, breaking it and causing glass to shatter and second, in older homes, in rare instances, lightning can come in cracks in the sides of windows.

Myth: If thunderstorms threaten while you are outside playing a game, it is okay to finish it before seeking shelter.

Fact: Many lightning casualties occur because people do not seek shelter soon enough. No game is worth death or life-long injuries. Seek proper shelter immediately if you hear thunder. Adults are responsible for the safety of children.

Myth: Structures with metal, or metal on the body (jewelry, cell phones, Mp3 players, watches, etc.), attract lightning.

Fact: Height, pointy shape, and isolation are the dominant factors controlling where a lightning bolt will strike. The presence of metal makes absolutely no difference on where lightning strikes. Mountains are made of stone but get struck by lightning many times a year. When lightning threatens, take proper protective action immediately by seeking a safe shelter - don’t waste time removing metal. While metal does not attract lightning, it does conduct it so stay away from metal fences, railing, bleachers, etc.

Myth: If trapped outside and lightning is about to strike, I should lie flat on the ground.

Fact: Lying flat increases your chance of being affected by potentially deadly ground current. If you are caught outside in a thunderstorm, you keep moving toward a safe shelter.

Myth: Lightning flashes are 3-4 km apart.

Fact: Old data said successive flashes were on the order of 3-4 km apart. New data shows half the flashes are about 9 km apart …

Myth: A high percentage of lightning flashes are forked.

Fact: Many cloud-to-ground lightning flashes have forked or multiple attachment points to earth …

Myth: Lightning can spread out some 60 feet after striking Earth.

Fact: Radial horizontal arcing has been measured at least 20 meters from the point where lightning hits ground. Depending on soils characteristics, safe conditions for people and equipment near lightning termination points (ground rods) may need to be re-evaluated.

There are several free apps for both Android smart phones and Apple I phones that offer some warning via cell alerts. One such claim is by WeatherBug by Earth Networks.

“Spark turns your smartphone into a personal lightning detector, providing real-time, minute-by-minute, mile-by-mile lightning monitoring from the WeatherBug Total Lightning Network (the largest in the world)!”

There is one thing for sure; here in Collier County we have some of the most beautiful natural lightening shows anywhere in the country. Their beauty is indescribable. Their danger is undeniable. Taking the time to become informed and informing children and guests of how to enjoy Mother Nature’s endless fireworks displays safely can help avoid becoming a victim of an unannounced bolt of lightning.

Contact Ann Hall at