Weather expert expected injuries

By Mike Linn: Freedom Newspapers

A meteorologist said he’s surprised lightning did not cause more injuries on Tuesday night, as the National Weather Service recorded 6,000 lightning strikes in one hour within a 60-mile radius south of Portales.

New Mexico State Police Officers Lance Bateman and Clint Varnell were injured by lightning near New Mexico Highway 206 about five miles south of Portales while helping people who were attempting to drive through flooded roadways.

Both officers were in stable condition Wednesday night at Covenant Hospital in Lubbock and are expected to return home today, hospital officials said.

Keith Hayes, an NWS meteorologist, said the lightning was at its worst between 9 p.m. and 10 p.m. on Tuesday.

“Easily we get two or three days a season where we get a pretty high amount — I don’t think I’ve seen it that high in a while,” Hayes said. “That was probably the worst-case scenario for (the officers) to be in. That kind of lightning could overwhelm an area. I was surprised with that kind of lightning there weren’t more injuries.”

Behind Florida, lightning touches ground in New Mexico more than any other state. Most of the thunderstorms in the state occur in the summer near mountain ranges, but the plains of eastern New Mexico get their fair share as well, Hayes said.

Lightning is defined as an abrupt electric discharge, from cloud to cloud or from cloud to earth, accompanied by the emission of light. While the chances of being struck by lightning are estimated at 1 in 700,000, lightning kills 75 to 100 people each year and injures about 300 more, weather statistics show.

“It isn’t unusual for a lightning strike victim to survive,” Hayes said.

He said most deaths occur after lightning causes cardiac arrest in its victim.

“I’m not surprised they survived because of all the variables that play a part in the severity of a lightning strike,” Portales Fire Marshal Mike Running said. “(In many cases) the odds are good you’re going to survive.”

Running said he is amazed at the number of people who will continue outdoor activities after they see lightning.

“What often goes in people’s mind is it’s too far away, but if you can see it, it’s close enough to strike you,” he said.