A Lake Worth woman was killed and two others inured by a lightning strike Wednesday afternoon as storms supercharged by a ribbon of tropical moisture exploded across South Florida.
The woman, 53-year-old Maria Francisco Pascual, died at the scene of the strike, which occurred at about 2 p.m. at C.W. Hendrix Farms in Parkland, just south of the Palm Beach County line.
A man and woman working alongside Pascual were injured by the strike, but the Broward County Sheriff’s Office did not release their names.
The man was taken to Broward Health North with serious injuries. The other unidentified woman “showed up” to JFK Medical Center with injuries that were not life threatening, according to the sheriff’s office.
Wednesday’s death is the second in Florida this year from lightning, and a grim reminder that regular afternoon thunderstorms have arrived with the rainy season, meteorologists said.
“Because it’s early in the season, people may not be remembering the typical things to do during a thunderstorm, which is to go inside,” said Melody Lovin, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Key West. “The rainy season switch has been flipped.”
Florida regularly tops the nation in lightning-related deaths.
In 2017, five of 16 lightning deaths occurred in Florida. The second-highest state was Alabama with three. Between 2007 and 2016, Florida had 51 lightning deaths. Texas had the second-highest at 21.
“This time of year is when we especially start to see an increase in lightning strikes,” said Robert Molleda, warning coordination meteorologist at the NWS in Miami. “Last week, when we were announcing the rainy season, we mentioned it as one of the primary hazards.”
Robust thunderstorms with cloud tops towering to 50,000 feet have plagued South Florida this week. An area of low pressure in the eastern Gulf of Mexico has pumped soggy tropical air into the state, helping destabilize an atmosphere primed for storminess by normal daytime heating and afternoon sea breezes.
Lightning forms when strong updrafts in 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.
“That energy is looking for the easiest route to the ground so when a structure at the surface is sticking up higher than anything else, it’s like a little highway for it,” Lovin said.
On Wednesday, weather service forecasters in Miami began tracking a strong thunderstorm at 1:55 p.m. over Parkland and near Coral Springs. It issued weather advisories for the area at 1:56 p.m. and 2:27 p.m.
Moser said the 911 call about the lightning strike was received at 2:08 p.m.
“The call was from someone at Hendrix Farm reporting two people struck by lightning,” he said. “When we arrived, we declared one deceased at the scene.”
The farm is open fields, which would make anyone in the fields more vulnerable to a strike.
The National Weather Service recommends going indoors when thunder can be heard. If there is no structure nearby, a car with its windows rolled up can provide shelter from lighting because the metal frame will conduct it into the ground if struck.
Florida’s first lightning death this year happened in April when lightning slammed into a tree at the Woodpecker Mud Bog north of Lake City, killing 23-year-old Kourtney Lambert. Lambert had sought shelter under the gooseneck of a camper trailer trying to stay out of a sudden rain shower.
“Nowhere outside is safe,” Molleda said. “At the first sign of thunder, it’s time to go inside.”
Lightning safety rules
- If you hear thunder, lightning is close enough to strike you.
- Shelter includes a car with a metal top, a substantial building or beach bathroom if nothing else is available.
- Stay off corded phones, computers and other electrical equipment that put you in direct contact with electricity.
- Avoid plumbing, including sinks, baths and faucets.
- Stay away from windows and doors, and stay off porches.
- Do not lie on concrete floors, and do not lean against concrete walls which may include metal.
- Immediately get off elevated areas such as hills, mountain ridges or peaks.
- Never lie flat on the ground.
- Never shelter under an isolated tree.
- Never use a cliff or rocky overhang for shelter.
- Immediately get out of and away from ponds, lakes and other bodies of water.
- Stay away from objects that conduct electricity (barbed wire fences, power lines, windmills, etc.).
Source: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration