Understanding lightning strikes after the deadly tragedy in Lafayette Park

It’s the middle of summer storm season in the D.C. area, and storms frequently bring lightning with them.

After last week’s deadly lightning strike in a park near the White House, WTOP spoke with a lightning expert about the power and danger of lightning strikes, and what to do in a storm.

“There’s multiple ways that people can be injured or struck by lightning, if lightning first hits another object,” Chris Vagasky, meteorologist and member of the National Lightening Safety Council, told WTOP’s DMV Download podcast.

He said other than a direct strike, people can be hit by a side flash, which means lightning strikes another object and the electricity jumps to a person nearby. Or people can be hit by ground current, the electricity travels from the object that was struck into the ground and spreads out to a larger area.

Authorities said the victims were huddled under a tree in the park, waiting out the storm, when they were struck.

Vagasky said during a storm, the only safe places are in an enclosed car or in a “substantial” building.

“A substantial building is something that has pipes and electrical in the wall,” Vagasky said.

“When you’re in one of those two safe places, electricity travels through the metal shell of the car or through the wiring and piping into the ground, and it keeps you enclosed and keeps you safe,” he said.

For people who are outside during a storm, he advised against getting into a crouching position to try and make yourself as low to the ground as possible. Instead, run to the closest building.

“As long as you keep moving toward that safe place, and you don’t go near something that’s more likely to be struck by lightning, like a tall tree or something like that, you can usually get significant headway toward being a lot safer.”

And while the odds of being struck by lightning are low, one in a million, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Vagasky said being outside during the storm increases the risk.

Shayna Estulin

Shayna Estulin is an anchor/reporter for WTOP. She started her career in New York City as a local TV reporter and has since covered foreign affairs and national politics as a Washington correspondent. She also anchored a nightly news show for an international network.

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