'When Thunder Roars, Go Indoors'

Howard Takes Part In Lightning Warning Campaign

July 30, 2009|By Don Markus | Don Markus,don.markus@baltsun.com

The weather seemed heaven-, or Hollywood-, sent: threatening skies spitting light rain. The surroundings seemed too perfect as well: campers playing tennis and basketball at Howard County's Centennial Park.

The only thing missing at Wednesday's announcement of the county's participation in a National Weather Service campaign on how thunder is "nature's early warning system" for the dangers of an impending lightning strike were a few loud claps of thunder.

"When it comes to thunder, it used to be a judgment call, somebody's mom or dad calling them in," said Howard County Executive Ken Ulman. "What we want to say is, 'When you hear thunder, there's no judgment call. Go inside.' "

Or as the 75 new signs that will be posted at parks and other recreational areas throughout the county read, "When Thunder Roars, Go Indoors."

The program is believed to be the first of its kind nationwide.

The impetus for Howard County's involvement came when Mary Fairbanks, a dangerous-weather forecaster for the National Weather Service, pulled her son off the pitcher's mound of a Little League game in Clarksville this year after she heard thunder. The game went on without him.

Fairbanks later sent an e-mail to other parents whose sons played in the league informing them about the dangers that follow the first thunderclap.

"I always, like everyone else, waited for the lightning," said Glenn Schneider, director of planning for the county health department, who received the e-mail. "I thought it certainly deserved more attention from the county. We need to elevate thunder to the status of lightning."

According to James Lee, meteorologist-in-charge for the National Weather Service's Baltimore-Washington region, there are 60 to 70 lightning-strike deaths nationally, including 25 this year. A 49-year-old jogger was killed running on the beach at the Outer Banks of North Carolina this week.

Lee acknowledges that deadly lightning strikes are not as prevalent in Maryland as in other parts of the country. Statistics bear that out: There has been one lightning-related fatality in the state in the past five years, in June 2007.

"Hundreds and hundreds of people are seriously injured by lightning every year and, in fact, more people are killed by lightning than by tornadoes or hurricanes," said Dr. Peter Beilenson, Howard County's health officer.

Despite a minimal cost - $1,875 for the signs, according to Schneider, who helped put together the program with the National Weather Service - some believe the new campaign will be met with resistance.

Charles Curran of Columbia was at a local pool with his 2 1/2 -year-old son, Luke, this week when thunder closed things down twice for 30 minutes each time.

"It's going to be tough," Curran said. "People were grousing about it at the pool; they were saying, 'It's not even close to us. That was a plane, that wasn't thunder.' People take chances, especially if they have a kid who wants to be in the pool."

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