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Ready Arlington: What is the Deadliest Natural Hazard in the United States?

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This biweekly column is sponsored by the Arlington Office of Emergency Management.

If your answer to the headline was heat and drought emergencies — you’re right! And we’ll address that a little later this summer. But let’s drill down to the second and third deadliest weather hazards for a moment: tornadoes and lightning.

We’re entering the season when it seems like we have almost daily thunderstorms, and it can feel like Arlington Alert is notifying you of so many severe weather watches and warnings, you almost stop paying attention. Here’s why you shouldn’t:

What is a Severe Thunderstorm?

A severe thunderstorm is any storm that produces hail at least 1 inch or larger, or wind that is 58mph or higher. Don’t be fooled by the definition — softball-size hail and winds over 100mph have been reported with severe thunderstorms.

Severe thunderstorms also have another potential byproduct: tornadoes, dangerous lightning and flash flooding.

Steps from Safety

Lightning strikes the U.S. 25 million times a year, killing an average of 49 people and injuring hundreds.

Seventy percent of strikes occur during the summer months, and a majority of deaths occur in males, and in people who are outdoors enjoying leisure or sporting activities, like fishing, camping, boating, yard work and beach-going. Many victims of lightning strike were either headed to safety, or just steps away when they were struck.

Tornadoes can, and do, accompany severe thunderstorms

We tend to think of tornadoes as a weather hazard the southern part of the state has to deal with. But as we saw earlier this year, tornadoes are a very real threat of severe thunderstorms. Three tornadoes sprouted from a severe thunderstorm on April 6, injuring one person here in Arlington, and causing damage in Herndon and Arlington as well as in Washington, D.C.

In the April tornadoes, the National Weather Service did not classify the event as a tornado until the next day, so only a Severe Thunderstorm Warning was sent out. This makes it even more important to take every severe thunderstorm warning seriously.

Be Thunderstorm-Safe Every Time

Follow these tips to keep you and your family safe during a severe thunderstorm:

  • Know the Terms:
    • Watch = Severe storm/tornado is possible; monitor weather & local radio for information
    • Warning = TAKE COVER; a severe storm/tornado has been sighted or is about to happen
  • If the Thunder Roars, Go Indoors: If you hear thunder, lightning is close enough to strike you. Stay inside for at least 30 minutes after you hear the last sound of thunder.
  • Lose the Conductors: Avoid sinks, faucets, tubs, corded phones, computers and other electrical equipment that put you in direct contact with electricity.
  • Seek Safety Immediately
    • Go to a lower level, and stay away from windows and doors
    • Do not lie on concrete floors or lean on concrete walls
    • Get out of, and away from, bodies of water
    • Leave elevated areas, like hills, mountain ridges or peaks
  • Get the Message! Register with Arlington Alert to receive automated National Weather Service alerts. You can also choose to receive emergency notifications and traffic notifications from Arlington at the same time!

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