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Lightning bolts strike forcing evacuations

By Natalie Jones, Tuesday February 5, 2013 - 14:58 EDT
Audience submitted image
Jig and Nikki, their hair on end, smile for the camera at Gantheaume Point during a storm. - Audience submitted

Broome residents Robin Strauss, Theresa De Biasi and Nikki Albert have more in common than they probably realise - all have had extremely close encounters with lightning and lived to tell the tale.

Robin was sitting on his balcony with a cup of tea, Theresa was doing her grocery shopping, and Nikki was chatting on her mobile phone at a beach.

Robin Strauss works at the Divers Tavern, situated on the edge of the white sandy dunes of Broome's famous Cable Beach.

During the wet season, locals can be found escaping the heat there on a Sunday afternoon with some live music and an ice cold beer.

But, the past two large storms in Broome have hit various buildings and left Divers patrons filing out the door in a frenzied rush.

"They've been quite amazing lightning strikes," said Mr Strauss.

"We had to evacuate two Sundays in a row, [we were] just about to start our Sunday sessions."

It was from the balcony of his nearby home that Robin witnessed a bolt of lightning that nearly hit the pub for the second Sunday in a row.

"A beautiful pink flash that seemed to hang there for seconds, it seemed like it was probably only a quick flash but the [last] one was a ripper - a bit closer to Divers Tavern and again, just amazing to see the lightning strikes," he said.

Mr Strauss says it's lucky there was only minor damage.

"I know we've got a couple of tools which have wonky screens at the moment, but I think the surge protectors have protected most of our equipment in the venue;we haven't had any building damage," he said.

"And, we're thinking of re-naming our Sunday sessions to shocking Sunday sessions."

The Divers Tavern wasn't the only building evacuated during the storm.

At the nearby Boulevard Shopping Centre, shire worker Theresa De Biasi was preparing to pay for her groceries.

"It was the peak time, the shopping centre was quite full of people, and then boom, there was this huge clap of thunder and a strike you could see from outside, there was this flash of lightning and then the emergency alarms came on," she said.

"The shopping centre PA system came on with the standard message of 'please evacuate'. As I walked out I could smell a distinct plastic burning smell."

Ms De Biasi abandoned the groceries and made for her car.

"As I was leaving the fire truck was pulling in," she said.

"Everyone got the hint and people just basically sort of left.

There wasn't a physical sign of any damage or smoke but the carpark was just sheets of water everywhere, so that was quite a heavy rain as well."

Standing on end

Perhaps it's Nikki Albert's tale that will leave your hair standing on end.

Two years ago Nikki was walking along Gantheume Beach with some friends from Geraldton.

The group watched a black cloud roll in over the ocean, pass over their heads and pass the golf course hill behind them.

"It hit the golf club and we saw it pass," she said.

"This woman was standing there with her partner and she was laughing and pointing and then she pointed at me and said 'your hair'!

"All the loose parts were standing right up, everyone's hair was standing up and then we saw the lighthouse, it [was] crackling.

"The other woman I saw looked like she had a fan behind her and it was blowing it straight up."

When Nikki got home she realised she'd had a brush with death.

"Then we looked on the BOM website and were a little bit scared because we thought 'oh jeez we were pretty close to being hit'. The BOM advised there's a conductor on the lighthouse that probably took a hit."

"We were walking through puddles and we didn't crouch and I was on a phone! How dangerous was it?"

Perfect storm

The Bureau of Meteorology's Neil Bennet explains that the Kimberley's hot and humid conditions can make a perfect storm.

"For any thunderstorm to form you need to have three key things to have lightning.

"One, what we call a trigger to make the air rise; two, you need to have an abundance of moisture, which we obviously do have in the tropics; three, what meteorologists call instability.

"So, what you're looking for is where is that trigger going to occur and that's what makes tropical forecasting so difficult."

The most recent data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics on causes of death is reassuring; no-one died from a lightning strike in Australia in 2010.

The previous years might serve as a warning - in 2009, three women were killed, in 2008 four men were killed, and in 2007 four men and four women were killed.

Timely escape

The BOM's Ray Hegarty adds that Nikki made a timely escape from the beach that day.

"She's a very very lucky woman - don't try this at home! Your hair standing on end is probably one of the very last warning signs before you get struck by lightning."

Mr Hegarty has some tips for surviving a lightning storm:

"Seek shelter straight away, preferably under something with a metal shell, not a tent," he said.

"Don't run for a tree because it'll probably be the highest point around.

"Take cover, preferably under something metal because the metal might attract the lightning but it also dissipates it around you, so as long as you're not touching the metal you're usually alright.

"That's why inside a car or inside a house with a steel roof is the safest place to be inside a storm."

If you can't find shelter, Mr Hegarty has other advice.

"Crouch down very low into the ground, curl up into a ball," he said.

"Don't lie on the ground, hold onto your feet, make yourself as small a target as possible and pray like hell that you don't get struck.

"Count the number of seconds between when you see the lightning flash and when you hear the thunder and for each three seconds the lightning is about one kilometre away."

The three Broome residents count themselves lucky to have avoided being struck.


- ABC

© ABC 2013

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