Lightning’s bite is chilling in its randomness.
It covets neither metal — a persistent myth — or water, and can strike from a sun-filled sky as readily as when thunderclouds darken overhead.
It kills, then bellows, and in a three-week period it has taken the lives of two Palm Beach County residents.
The number is notable considering just three people have been killed so far this year by lightning nationwide and the last death in Palm Beach County was recorded nearly a decade ago when a 20-year-old man playing soccer in Boca Raton was struck, dying three days later.
“It is unusual but not unheard of,” said John Jensenius, a lightning specialist with the National Weather Service.
In fact, in 2003, two Palm Beach County residents were killed 11 minutes apart after lightning strikes during an August storm.
But knowing the facts of lightning’s behavior can save lives, Jensenius said.
For example, when 23-year-old Bechelet Joseph was struck Friday, it was noted that he had just picked up a vehicle battery in a yard full of metal rods and tools. But Jensenius said that had “nothing at all” to do with the strike.
“Lightning is not attracted to anything,” He said. “I’ve seen various articles about batteries and screwdrivers, none of which had any effect.”
A large tree nearby was a more likely culprit as lightning tends to aim for the tallest object, which can conduct electricity to anyone standing nearby.
Other lightning safety facts include:
• A car with a metal roof is good shelter from lightning, but not because of the rubber tires. If lightning strikes the car, it will be conducted by the metal around and into the ground. A convertible does not offer the same protection.
• Lightning can strike from 10 miles away, meaning sunny skies when a storm is imminent are still dangerous.
• Lightning tends to strike the tallest object in an area, so trees are not safe places to seek shelter.
• A person injured by lightning is not electrified. Victims typically die of cardiac arrest. People who can administer CPR will not be electrocuted if they do so.
“The safety for thunderstorms is pretty darn simple, don’t be outside,” said Ken Clark, an expert meteorologist with AccuWeather. “If you hear thunder, then you can be struck by lightning.”
Last year, 27 people were killed in the U.S. by lightning, including five in Florida, which accounted for the highest in any state.
Most lightning deaths occur in July, another detail that makes the two deaths in South Florida this year on March 25 and Friday unusual.
Friday’s storms were well forecast, with meteorologists warning as early as Tuesday that hail and lightning were likely in the afternoon.
Lightning forms when strong updrafts in towering cumulonimbus clouds force molecules to collide, creating an electric charge. Lightning rapidly heats a narrow channel of air to temperatures as high as 54,000 degrees, which prompts the emission of light and a crack of thunder as super-heated air expands rapidly, producing shockwaves.
The bolt that shoots down is about the width of a finger, said Hamid Rassoul, dean of the Florida Institute of Technology’s College of Science.
“The charge happens the same way your shoes rubbing on a carpet can create a charge,” Rassoul said. “If the clouds get charged, we know they have to discharge and the cloud is looking for the easiest way, the tallest object.”
A Lake Worth man, Farooq Mohammad, was the first Florida lightning victim this year. He was struck at Jonathan Dickinson State Park.
“Lightning is not random in the respect that you know a thunderstorm will produce it,” Clark said. “But lightning strikes are random, it’s just not something you can predict.”