The thunderstorms that rolled over Palm Beach County on Tuesday were bold in their attack, strutting in behind formidable shelf clouds and conjuring a lightning storm notable even by Florida standards.
In a two-hour period beginning at 2 p.m., 1,700 bolts of lightning crashed down from icy cloud tops to Palm Beach County soil, according to the National Weather Service in Miami.
While a common sight during summer’s afternoon thunderstorms, an abundance of March lightning is a more unusual event. During the duration of Tuesday’s storms, about 2,500 lightning strikes were measured in Palm Beach County.
Robert Molleda, the warning coordination meteorologist in Miami, said Tuesday’s lightning show was of a magnitude seen only a few times annually.
“For this time of year, you wouldn’t expect to see a storm producing 1,700 strikes in two hours in one county,” said Portland, Maine-based John Jensenius, a lightning specialist with the weather service who gathers data about strikes from across the country. “In Maine, I would never expect to see that.”
But Florida draws lightning like a magnet, with storms exploding along cold fronts and brewing up on seabreeze boundaries that march ashore in warmer months.
It led the nation in lightning deaths between 2005 and 2015 with 52 people killed. About 90 percent of its strikes occur between June and September.
On Tuesday, the weather service issued a severe thunderstorm warning for southeastern Palm Beach County at 3:04 p.m. as forecasters watched a roiling system moving east at 15 mph.
“Prepare immediately for large hail and deadly cloud-to-ground lightning,” the alert read.
About 40 minutes later, three Boca Raton firefighters were blown off their feet by a lightning strike after putting out a backyard fire that had been ignited by a previous bolt.
Two remained conscious, the third was flung 15 to 20 feet and began having a seizure.
Michael LaSalle, assistant fire chief for Boca Raton Fire Rescue Services, said the two who remained conscious were sent home from Delray Medical Center late Tuesday. The third, a 22-year veteran, went home Wednesday after a battery of tests.
“They stepped out from under an overhang during what they thought was a break and that’s when they felt it, as quick as that, just a couple of steps,” said LaSalle, who did not release the names of the firefighters. For now, they do not want to be interviewed about the experience, he said.
Florida ranks tops nationally for the number of cloud-to-ground lightning strikes per square mile with an average of 1.2 million flashes per year. In 2014, the state totaled 1.47 million strikes, second only to Texas, which was hit 2.68 million times.
About 1 in 10 people “hit by lightning” die, most often from cardiac arrest, Jensenius said.
Just one person this year is known to have died from a lightning strike. A 28-year-old woman was struck while taking shelter in a tent at a blues festival in Larose, La.
“The big thing to remember is, if you hear thunder, you are in danger,” Jensenius said.