Monday, August 06, 2012

Lightning Safety Time!

With eighteen people in the last week being struck by lightning in three separate events, including ten up at Pocono Raceway, lightning is becoming all the rage these days it seems.  Sunday's lightning episode happened just after the rain-shortened conclusion of a NASCAR race as multiple lightning strikes hit behind the grandstands as people were leaving the event and going to their cars.  One fatality, a 41 year old male, was in the parking lot and near or just about to get into his car (varying reports) when lightning struck his car.

In the case of Sunday's lightning event at a NASCAR event, NASCAR decides the fate of races based on the threat of weather but the ultimate decision on whether to evacuate the stands and tell people to get out of dodge rests with the track owners.   That in itself is something that NASCAR should probably take a look at revisiting with this event.

Regardless, two warnings went out via social at 4:21 PM, warning severe thunderstorms would arrive in about 10 to 15 minutes, and the second just before 5 PM saying lightning was in the area and to seek shelter.  However, a severe thunderstorm warning was issued for the race area around 4:12 PM yesterday, with cars still on the track until at least 4:40 PM according to the Morning Call report.   Warnings were apparently broadcast over public address at the track as they were being broadcast over social media.   Despite the communication, it still wasn't enough given this was a potent line of storms coming in and there should have been more attempt to inform folks of the threat and strongly suggest evacuation of the track.

Brian Neudorff, a meteorologist out in Idaho who worked in Rochester for a time, also runs a twitter account dedicated to NASCAR weather.  While unofficial, it does provide a heads up to race patrons and NASCAR fans of weather conditions in and close to the race area.  Neudorff provided a few warnings that the storm was coming and essentially questioned aloud why NASCAR didn't pull the plug on the race.  He also opined about the lack of interest in fan safety on NASCAR's part in an opinion piece on earlier today:
My friend John Keyes works for the National Weather Service, and he was among those who tweeted several times that NASCAR needed to stop the race. “If they don’t, (I’ll) be convinced they don’t pay attention to warnings and fan safety,” he tweeted at 4:28 p.m. “As a (meteorologist), I will be PO’d.”
While it may be tough for race patrons to hear distant thunder during the roar of a NASCAR race, the onus does fall on both NASCAR and the raceway owners to alert patrons to the threat of severe weather in more than just a couple of tweets and communications via social media.  This is also the second bigger sporting event in the last four weeks to deal with lightning strikes -- the other was in Arlington, TX, during a Twins-Rangers baseball game last month.

Lightning fatalities have trended downward nationally over the past several years -- from 48 in 2006 to 26 last year.  Despite the recent uptick in lightning strikes injuring and hitting people around the region, the trend is for fewer fatalities thanks to increased awareness.  That said, precaution and safety are never a bad thing.  The National Weather Service has a great primer on the causes of lightning and what constitutes safe and unsafe shelter during a thunderstorm.