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animated lightning imageLightning

    It's a warm afternoon and the football team is on the field practicing. Some parents and a few other spectators sit in the bleachers watching the play. The sky to the west is darkening and a warm breeze has picked up. The rumble of thunder can be heard in the distance. Keeping a watchful eye to the sky, the coach figures he can get through most of the practice before the rain comes. There is a big game on Saturday and only one practice left. He can't afford to let up now.

    The practice continues, the thunder gets louder and the sky a bit darker. A cool, gusty wind now blows in from the west, but still no rain. A parent walks over to the coach and asks about the chance of practice being called early. The coach smiles and says, "I've been watching that storm and it appears to be passing north of us now." The sky begins to lighten to the west and a couple sun rays beam down from beneath the towering clouds. Suddenly, a white streak hits the uprights in the end zone with a deafening roar. Players, near that end of the field, tumble to the ground.

    There is confusion. What happened? Where did the lightning come from? The storm was at least 5 miles away and none of the previous strokes were anywhere near the school. It seemed to just come out of the blue! In 1988, eleven players on the Silver City, NM football team where taken to the hospital after lightning struck their practice field. Fortunately none where killed, but four were seriously injured. Every year lightning hits ball fields during little league and soccer games. Many games are not called until the rain begins, and yet it is not the rain that is dangerous. Ball fields provide a lot of potential lightning targets such as poles, metal fences, and metal bleachers. The fields themselves are wide open areas where players are often the tallest objects around.

    Maryland, District of Columbia, and Virginia average between 30 and 40 thunderstorm days each year. Lightning is the most common thunderstorm threat. Nationally, lightning kills an average of 85 and injures 250 people each year. This number may not seem high, yet when you look at the individual cases, most could have been prevented. The basic rule of thumb is "If you can hear thunder, you are close enough to the storm to be struck!" Thunderstorms extend 5 to 10 miles into the atmosphere. Winds aloft can blow the upper portion (anvil) of the storm many miles downstream. Lightning can come out of the side or anvil of the storm striking the ground 10 to 15 miles away from the rain portion of the cloud.

vehicle in river upside downFlash Floods

    Heavy rains from thunderstorms had been occurring all day in the Virginia foothills and the National Weather Service issued a Flash Flood Watch around noon. The rain had let up by the time the children loaded the buses at Hillboro Elementary School. With a full load of children, Fred started the bus and pulled out.

    Fred had been driving this route for over five years and had never encountered any flood problems. He didn't expect any today. About halfway through his route, he turned onto Dark Hollow Road. The road crosses a small stream and this afternoon, the stream was out of its banks and flowing across the road. Fred slowed the bus as he approached the water. If he turned around, it would take him an extra hour to get the remaining children home. The water looked less than a foot deep. Certainly, the bus could safely cross that. He decided to move forward.

    The bus moved easily through the water, but as it approached the bridge, the front tires fell into a hole. With the water over the road, Fred hadn't seen that the pavement had been undermined. He attempted to back out, but the bus wouldn't budge. What was worse, the water was continuing to rise and was now more than a foot and a half above the road! Fred knew he better act fast. There was still eleven children on the bus.

    About fifty yards away was higher ground, a hillside. They would head there. The current was picking up. He would have to carry the smaller ones. His third and last trip from the bus to the hill was a hard one. In just ten minutes, the water had risen to waist deep and he could barely keep his footing. Grabbing onto to trees and bushes along the way, he pulled himself and the last child to the hillside and out of the water. He was exhausted. He wouldn't have made it if he had to carry one more. As he turned around to look back at the bus, the bus overturned and washed into the raging waters.

    Floods occur every year in Maryland and Virginia. Nationally, it is the number one weather-related killer averaging 150 deaths per year. Half of these deaths occur in automobiles. NEVER ENTER FLOODED WATERS! If caught in rising water, abandon your vehicle immediately and move to higher ground. Fred and the children were lucky. He acted quickly and got them to safety, but he never should have attempted to cross the flooded area to begin with.

wall cloud approaching Sterling Forecast Office

Severe Thunderstorms:
Hail, Downbursts, and Tornadoes

    It is 1:30 pm and the principal has just learned that the National Weather Service has issued a Severe Thunderstorm Watch. Thunderstorms are building to the west and are expected to hit the school district in less than an hour. He decides to cancel all outdoor activities and make an announcement to inform the teachers and staff.

    At 2:05 pm, it begins to get very dark outside and there is a rumble of thunder. The principal steps out to have a look. The sky appears as if its boiling and has taken on a green tinge. The wind picks up and the trees begin to sway. A cool blast hits him and a cloud of dust blows across the parking lot. "This storm doesn't look good." He reenters the building and is told the National Weather Service has just issued a Severe Thunderstorm Warning for their county. Suddenly, he hears a roar of wind and a crash. The storm has let loose a downburst - a sudden, strong rush of wind.

    He rushes toward the source of the noise. A branch from a nearby tree shattered a window in a classroom. A few children were injured from the flying glass. Two will need stitches. He evacuates the classrooms on the windward side and moves the children into the interior music room which has no windows. They will be safe in there.

    Hail begins to fall and grow larger in size. The physical education instructor is barely heard above the roar of the hail striking the gymnasium roof and skylights. She moves the students into the locker rooms where it is safer. Large hail can impact at 100 mph. Suddenly, the skylights shatter.

    The principal decides to play it safe and move all students into the interior hallways. The lights flicker and the power goes out. He can't announce it on the PA system so he grabs a bull horn and begins rapidly moving through the school. The students and teachers empty out of the classrooms, a little confused. Some are excited by the commotion and some are scared by the storm. The hallways are noisy with anxious voices, but quiet down when a roar, similar to the sound of a train drowns them out. Teachers yell "Get down! Drop to your knees and cover your head!" Glass is heard breaking somewhere in the building.

    It was all over in just a couple minutes. Only ten minutes had passed since the thunder began. A tornado struck the school. The classrooms on the south side of the school were destroyed. The cafeteria and gymnasium roofs were gone. Children and teachers were shaken, but injuries were relatively minor. Because the principal in this scenario took the proper actions, lives were saved. No one was killed.

    On May 2, 1929, four schools were destroyed in Virginia in a tornado outbreak. Two of the schools were in session when the tornadoes struck. Fourteen students and teachers were killed and over 60 injured. On April 1, 1973, a strong tornado struck Woodson High School in Fairfax Virginia. Fortunately it was Sunday. The same school was struck by another tornado just six years later. On November 9, 1926, at 2:30 p.m., a tornado struck a school house in La Plata, Maryland. Sixty children and two teachers were inside. The building was lifted off its foundation and smashed into trees 50 feet away. Fourteen students were killed; the other 48 people were injured. Debris was found up to 25 miles away.


    Flash floods, severe thunderstorms, and tornadoes occur with rapid onset and perhaps, no warning. Decisions must be made fast and actions taken immediately. One can not wait for the storms to strike to plan what must be done to save lives. Get prepared now and develop an emergency action plan for your school.

    Schools may want to consider what to do when hurricanes, winter storms, excessive cold or excessive heat is expected to affect the school district. This type of weather, however, is usually predicted at least a day in advance allowing more time to make decisions about the operations of the school. These weather hazards are discussed further in Section 2, Part G.

    Having a clear weather policy lets parents, teachers and students know what to expect. Because this policy is based on a safety issue, there is less likelihood of problems implementing it, even if it means delaying or canceling a championship sports event due to lightning. A clear policy leads to consistent actions and hence less confusion or doubt about actions to take. A clear policy makes it easier to make the hard decisions when the time comes and to make them quickly if necessary.

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