KINSTON — It’s an act of God that’s both lethal and life giving. A natural occurrence that’s commonplace around the world whose reputation for death and mayhem may be overstated.
Lightning — that sudden electrostatic discharge that occurs during a thunderstorm — has been the subject of song and verse and has raised the hair on the backs of many is a necessary agent of the natural universe by unlocking electrons from the nitrogen atoms thus freeing them to combine with oxygen and hydrogen atoms to form nitrates. Plants synthesize proteins which are then consumed by other animals including humans.
Lightning is also used as Mother Nature’s removal service with its intense heat of more than 53,000 degrees — compared to the relatively cool surface of the sun registering “just” 10,340 degrees — a bolt of lightning striking a flammable object such as dry brush or densely wooded forests ignites in an instant and clears the land and allows seeds to be unsheathed from their protective shells.
Lightning has a sinister side which was on exhibit July 11 aboard New River Air Station when a thunderstorm approached the sprawling military base in Onslow County on the shores of the New River. While working on an MV-22 Osprey aircraft on July 11, according to the 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing, Cpl. Skyler James, a tiltrotor mechanic assigned to Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron 261, Marine Aircraft Group 26, and another Marine were struck by lightning. James was rushed to Naval Hospital and later transferred to UNC Health Center where he was declared brain dead.
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, seven people have been killed by lightning in 2017: Four from Florida, one from Colorado, Texas and North Carolina. NOAA states that 39 people were killed in 2016 from lightning.
Four days after the New River Marine was struck a spectacular lightning storm rolled through eastern North Carolina on July 15 causing area life guards to warn bathers and beach-goers to seek shelter and first responders answering 911 calls for help.
Emerald Isle Fire Department Chief Bill Walker sent crews to a mutual aid call off the island while another engine company raced to a beach-front struck by nature’s fury. In the 5300 block of Ocean Drive, a duplex was struck at its roofline causing damage to appliances and electronic equipment inside the home. A day after the storm, the Ciuppa family from Jefferson Township, N.J. checked in finding all the electronic and appliances had been replaced or repaired.
Linwood Hood, owner of 24/7 Electric, said lightning “usually goes to the electronics” when it strikes a home.
“We had four or five calls after Saturday’s storm rolled through,” Hood said Tuesday morning.
Swansboro Fire Chief Mark Tessing said the “heat alone from a lightning strike can cause combustion as well short wiring.”
The same warm, balmy weather that attracts tourists such as the Ciuppa family is the perfect catalyst for thunderstorms with accompanying lightning says National Weather Service Meteorologist Tom Lomka based in Newport.
“We have as much or more lightning activity in the eastern and southern U.S. because of the all the warm, humid and unstable air which fuels these types of storms,” Lomka said.
Some men who spent their careers on the water but now idle their days at a local Swansboro fish house recall the times they were targets of lightning’s wrath. Jim Allen, a former town commissioner and barge operator was struck by lightning while sitting inside a crane on the deck of a barge in the Currictuck Sound.
“The storm came up so fast. I just stayed in the crane,” Allen recalled.
Alex Moore, 72, a retired N.C. Dept. of Transportation ferry pilot, remembers being struck by lightning as he crossed the Cherry Branch.
“It tears up all the electronics on the ship,” Moore said.
While damage done by lightning is covered by those who purchase appropriate insurance coverages, agents in eastern North Carolina don’t see many claims as a result of lightning damage to crops or farm equipment.
Farm Bureau Agent Bridget Ipock on U.S. 70 in New Bern said, “it’s rare if we saw a claim for damage caused by lightning.” Ipock said other natural disasters such as hail or hurricanes are more common than damaged caused by an electrical storm.
While common sense dictates appropriate action needed when storms approach such as seeking shelter or if an enclosure is unavailable to lie in the lowest available area, many times people find themselves unprepared and vulnerable like on a golf course. Paul Meyer holds a 24 handicap when he and his buddies tee it up at New Bern’s Taberna Country Club. Yet even the retired Long Island native knows when to head into the clubhouse as storms approach.
“If you see lightning, you go home or to the shelters at hole No. 13 or No. 7,” Meyer said. “We can play golf anytime.”
The staff at Lions Water Adventure in Kinston are constantly watching the various weather news feeds for possible storms. Josh Bass, aquatics director for the 1,200-person capacity, outdoor pool business staffed by more than three dozen employees said “we do an early morning check of the weather stations and then monitor them throughout the day. If we hear thunder we get the people out of the pool for at least 30 minutes. If we hear additional thunder, we reset the clock for another 30 minutes. When we see lightning, we make everyone exit the property.”
Gatehouse Media Reporter Mike McHugh can be reached at 910-219-8455 or firstname.lastname@example.org.