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Beware, lightning can strike anytime, anywhere and kill you instantly

It struck there…

  • Lightning struck
  • By Uthpala Gunethilake
    Most of us place a high value on per-sonal safety. We lock our doors and gates, build high walls around our homes, take out insurance policies on our valuables and think we are safe. But are we? Sometimes it takes only minutes for our safe worlds to crumble. Natural disasters are known to wreak such sudden havoc. And among them, lightning reigns supreme.

    In Sri Lanka each year, there are a considerable number of deaths and much damage due to lightning. In 1999, the reported figure was as high as 49 people and 16 animals. Right now, we are in the middle of a lightning spell, which, according to Meteorology Department authorities, will continue till mid-December.

    Met Deputy Chief"Spells of lightning occur largely during the two inter-monsoon seasons. Now we are in the second of the two, between the South-West monsoon (May-September) and the North-East monsoon (December-February)," explained Deputy Director of the Met. Department, Mr. K.R. Abhayasingha. 

    "While the incidence of lightning may lessen after mid-December, we will be in for another 'dangerous' period after the North-East monsoon ends and the next inter-monsoon season starts. April is usually the peak period for lightning," he said, mentioning that this is known commonly as 'Bak Maha Akunu'. 

    A tall, heavy cloud called the Cumulonimbus, generates lightning. This cloud, developing towards afternoon, has 'charged' centres like the two centres of a battery. Since the base of the cloud is about 500 metres from the ground, the proximity imposes a 'charged' centre on the ground too. Currents pass between these charged centres-the cloud and earth- like in a battery. These are the currents we call lightning. 

    "They can be of very high voltage, many hundred times more than the domestic voltage of 250 we use everyday," explained Mr. Abhayasingha. The sheer power of the current allows passage through the atmosphere, but having a medium such as a tree makes its path easier. "Therefore the tallest object in the vicinity, which in other words is the closest to the charged cloud, gets struck by lightning," he explained.

    "It also issues side flashes, hitting whatever is close," he added. He said that this might have caused the death of Sapugaskanda resident Piyasili Perera, who was struck by lightning recently while bathing at a well bordered by some coconut trees. "Lightning would have hit the trees and struck her in a side flash," Mr. Abhayasingha said.

    As for specific areas where lightning is most likely to strike, Mr. Abhayasingha said that there are many such small areas scattered around the island. "Thelihunna in Gampola is well-known as being lightning-prone, also places like Atabage, Dolosbage, Elpitiya and Ratnapura. Slightly hilly areas are usually affected. But lightning can strike anywhere," he said.

    However unpredictable, lightning hazards can sometimes be prevented. Mr. Abhayasingha says the main precaution one should take is to stay away from flat, open areas during lightning and avoid contact with any metal objects. "If you find yourself on flat ground in an open area where you are the tallest object around, lie down. Footwear or plastic sheets, which do not absorb electricity, can be used to shield you from ground currents. Don't shelter directly under a lone tree: it may be the tallest object in the area, and will draw lightning, which may pass on to you," he warns. 

    However, a clump of trees could offer protection from lightning and it may be a good idea to have a few tall trees in your garden if it is in a relatively flat area. 

    "When there's lightning, swimming, wading or bathing outside is dangerous because water is a good conductor of currents. Also, avoid riding in open vehicles such as bicycles and tractors. If you are in a boat, lie low. Anchoring the boat under high objects like a jetty or a bridge helps, as long as no direct contact is made. But being within closed structures such as a car or a house is relatively safe," he said. "The house-because the concrete has metal rods inside- and the car, are like protective cages of metal. The lightning will pass through the metal, and not through those inside."

    But concrete can also be dangerous. Another victim, Mrs. Sandhya Ratnaseeli died last month while cutting a cake in her kitchen, and Mr. Abhayasingha says the currents may have come through the chimney. "Usually the chimney, made of concrete, is the tallest point in a house, and the metal inside the structure draws lightning easily. If someone stands near the chimney, a side flash can strike him."

    Touching or standing close to wire fences or metal clotheslines are taboo and so is the use of telephones. "The telephone post may be the tallest object in the area, and lightning comes directly through the wires and can strike the user. This applies to ground phones; cell-phones are not known to be hazardous, but it's best to avoid using them in bad weather."

    Each household electrical object has an earth wire (green) leading to the 'earth rod', directing lightning currents to the ground. Mr. Abhayasingha says the best way to protect household appliances is to ensure there is a proper earth rod installed in your house. "In tall buildings, there are copper rods running down its height, and this is very effective because copper is the best conductor. You must make sure that the resistance of the earth rod in your house is less than 10 ohms. If not, install several rods which, together will be less than 10 ohms, and connect them with a wire. This is very safe." 

    "The earth rod diverts direct currents. There is also the 'power divertor', available for about Rs. 3000/=, which diverts currents coming through the power supply. This can safeguard electrical instruments, but the first rule is, pull out the plugs and switch off every electric object in the house." 

    Precautions are all very well, but what are the chances of saving someone who is struck by lightning? "Many deaths occur between being struck by lightning and admission to hospital. When someone is struck, what occurs mostly is temporary paralysis of the body, and first aid measures such as massaging and giving artificial respiration can save the person. But most people don't know this," Mr. Abhayasinghe said.

    He pointed out that there's no danger in touching someone who has been struck by lightning. "It's when someone has an electric shock that you mustn't touch him. On the contrary, lightning currents leave the body within minutes."

    Lightning struck

    More often than not, life gives no warnings. Thirty-eight-year-old Piyasili Perera had had a quiet Saturday. Till about three in the afternoon, that is. According to her aunt Malini, with whom Piyasili had lived since she was a baby, Piyasili went to the well behind their house to bathe after lunch. "I was inside and suddenly there was this massive, frightening noise. I ran out to see Piyasili lying on the ground near the well. We rushed her to hospital but it was too late; she was already dead," says Malini.

    Their little house in Pamunuwila, a few kilometres from the Sapugaskanda oil refinery, stands in the middle of a paddyfield. The tallest objects around are the few coconut trees in the garden. "There was another coconut tree near the well, but it had been hit by lightning and we cut it down," said Malini, adding that there was no rain at the time of the incident, only a slight drizzle.

    On the day Piyasili met her death, October 11, Sandhya Ratnaseeli (30) had company. A friend, Chandima Withanage visited her home in Biyagama, and the two of them and Sandhya's husband were getting ready to have a piece of cake. But before they cut the cake, disaster struck. "We were in the kitchen, Sandhya was standing in the middle, with her husband and me on either side, and suddenly I felt the lightning going through me. I screamed, and the next thing, I saw Sandhya on the ground. Aiya (Sandhya's husband, Ajith Weerakoon) said he felt the current through him too. But it was Akka who was struck. At the hospital they said she had died instantly."

    According to Chandima, this had happened around 3.45 p.m. and there had been no rain at the time, only a slight drizzle. Sandhya left behind two daughters and two sons, the oldest 11 years old, and the youngest just two-and-a-half.


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