Mother nature upstaged dazzling Fourth of July fireworks displays with a light show of her own, unleashing fire and fury in the form of lightning, thunder and torrential rain, even sending huddled masses for cover under an overhang of Trump Plaza in West Palm Beach.
For cities and municipalities that spent tens of thousands of dollars for fireworks, the thunderstorms threatened to turn the celebration into a dud — and a dangerous one at that.
Nancy Pullum, a neighborhood activist, was at a friend’s home near Flagler Drive in West Palm Beach to watch the fireworks. “The lightning was actually frightening,” she said. “There were some people outside watching for fireworks, and I said, ‘You need to get in here.’ ”
It’s no joke. While thankfully the lightning didn’t appear to strike anybody in South Florida, others at fireworks shows in the Chicago area weren’t so lucky.
Four people, including a 4-year-old girl, were struck at two separate shows. In Denver and Washington D.C., meteorologists warned of the danger of lightning during fireworks displays. No fatalities were reported.
“The Fourth of July is always a concern because of a couple factors,” said John Jensenius, lightning safety specialist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “It is July and we see a lot of lightning and thunderstorms develop in the afternoon and that is the time people are enjoying picnics and fireworks.”
There used to be as many as 400 fatalities from lightning strikes a year nationwide in the 1930s; last year was a record low of 16. But a lightning strike last Wednesday that killed a boater in Umatilla marked the fifth lightning-related death in Florida this year, matching the annual average with two of the most dangerous months still ahead.
“A lot of people do take chances when thunderstorms are around and it puts them in a dangerous and potentially deadly spot,” Jensenius said.
A lightning strike can occur 10 miles from the storm, so if thunder can be heard, it’s not safe to be outside.
Tom Collins and his family were sent scurrying under the overhang at Trump Plaza because of the torrential thunderstorm. He said he joined about 50 to 100 people seeking cover. Then despite the weather, the fireworks show emanating from a barge in Lake Worth Lagoon started.
“You had the booms of fireworks and the booms of thunder and the lightning bolts coming and flashing down right next to and amid the fireworks,” he said.
“It was an incredible amount of rain,” said Collins, who lives in Flamingo Park and was with his wife and two young boys. “A lot of people go to Flagler on the Fourth of July, and it seemed all of them were under the cover of Trump Plaza. It was really a wet and chilly night, but it actually ended up one of the coolest fireworks displays I’ve ever seen.”
Mary Pinak, community events manager for the West Palm Beach Department of Parks and Recreation, said the decision to go on with the show is based on science and timing.
“We were happy to find a window of opportunity to safely dazzle and delight residents and visitors, many of whom viewed the show from inside area businesses and downtown condos and some of whom drove from across the country to see the show,” she said.
Chris Liberatore, vice president of sales for Pyrotechnica Fireworks in Pompano Beach, said the rain doesn’t really hamper setting off the fireworks. Pyrotechnica was responsible for fireworks shows in West Palm Beach, Riviera Beach, Key West and elsewhere in South Florida on July 4th. There is a cover of some kind for the operators if it is necessary, he said.
“We take precautions to just keep the product dry during the shoot,” Liberatore said. “We can actually shoot through the coverings.”
It’s safer to shoot the fireworks once they are placed in their metal tubes for launching rather than having to dismantle and box them back up. After all, they are explosives.
And expensive ones at that.
Royal Palm Beach and Delray Beach spent $35,000 for their fireworks display. Boca Raton doled out $30,000. Wellington spent $40,000, up from $35,000 the year before. The West Palm Beach show is the mother lode, costing $75,000, much of it paid for through sponsors.
So these displays were going to go off, if at all possible.
Palm Springs, west Boca Raton, Delray Beach and Wellington all launched early in hopes of outsmarting the weather.
The on-and-off downpour produced 2.4 inches of rain overnight west of Boca Raton. About 4,000 people showed up at the West Boca Amphitheater, but organizers said previous years have yielded higher attendance, event specialist Kara Cowser said.
Wellington Village Park’s crowd size was down, as well, from 7,500 last year to 3,500.
Kate Watkins of Lake Worth was heading to the show nearby with her family when they decided to just turn around.
“I have a 3-year-old and a 1-year-old and my 3-year-old was terrified from the lightning,” she said.
Delray Beach’s show almost got canceled.
“When there’s lightning 5 to 6 miles out, we have to call the show and evacuate people from the beach,” said Stephanie Immelman, executive director of the nonprofit Delray Beach Marketing Cooperative, which plans the event for the city.
Delray Beach hasn’t canceled a Fourth of July fireworks show in at least 10 years, she said. “It’s a really hard decision to make, especially because so many people are out there specifically for this event.”
The lightning didn’t scare the throngs of people who were on the beach with blankets and lawn chairs in Delray Beach.
In Jupiter, the Florida State League game between Palm Beach and Daytona scheduled to start at 6 p.m. was delayed and ended early so the fireworks for 4,420 fans could go off despite the light drizzle.
Brent Morgan, interim parks and recreation director for the Village of Palm Springs, said it was tricky trying to make a decision when to light the fuse for its $12,000 show
“As you tracked that storm, it had all passed over and it was all clear, and then all of a sudden, it was back in,” Morgan said.“Right as those last final finale fireworks went off, and then stopped, we had a standing ovation from those that were present, and then this torrential downpour hit.”
Post reporters Lulu Ramadan, Kristina Webb, Ryan DiPentima and Jodie Wagner contributed to this story.