Coral Gables

Coral Gables elementary school plugs into lightning detection


If you go

What: Unveiling of WeatherBug lightning detection system

When: 10:30 a.m. Thursday

Where: St. Thomas Episcopal Parish School, 5692 N. Kendall Dr., Coral Gables

Information: 305-665-4851

Frank Veloso remembers the athletic fields at West Miami-Dade’s Christopher Columbus High School with much affection, but also apprehension.

Years before Veloso’s 1994 graduation, Columbus student Julio Portela was struck by lightning and killed while practicing with the school’s football team. Portela’s death in 1975, long memorialized at the school with a plaque, touched Veloso personally. Portela was Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez’s brother in law. Veloso, now 36, was a childhood friend of the Gimenez family.

While Veloso was at Columbus, in 1991, a bolt of lightning struck three coaches and a player at South Miami High during football practice on a gloomy August day, killing assistant coach Robert Johnson.

These incidents introduced Veloso to the power of lightning.

Now that Veloso is a parent of two boys, ages 7 and 4, he, along with wife Christina, have donated $5,000 to underwrite the cost of a lightning detection system for St. Thomas Episcopal Parish, a pre-K to fifth grade school in Coral Gables that their children attend.

“What’s worse for a parent than getting a phone call and them saying, ‘Your child has been in an accident.’ This is something that can be prevented,” Veloso said. “I thought for my kids and anyone on a PE field or park or on the beach, this can happen anywhere. I’m trying to do my small part to bring awareness to something that can be done through the state of Florida, the lightning capital of the U.S.A..”

On Thursday morning, St. Thomas will unveil the WeatherBug lightning detection system to parents, staff and the community. The WeatherBug system, manufactured by Maryland-based Earth Networks, is considered a total lightning system, meaning it tracks cloud-to-ground lightning strikes as well as in-cloud strikes which can serve as an advance warning that a storm threatens, said Frank McCathran, director of enterprise solutions at WeatherBug.

The WeatherBug sends web-based alerts via text, email and to computers so administrators at the school can track storms’ direction and intensity and can then bring students inside. WeatherBug is the same company that markets an app via the Apple Store that many users have on their smart phones to check weather conditions.

“The system before was manual,” says St. Thomas head of school Kris Matteson Charlton, meaning coaches and staff made a decision on when to bring students inside by observing conditions and often applying the typical count between the sound of thunder and flash of lightning to determine its distance.

The rule of thumb is that for every five seconds between the lightning and thunder, the lightning is a mile away. Count to 20, for instance, and the lightning is four miles away. The problem is that lightning can strike outward from a thunderstorm about 10 miles and that’s about the distance that you can hear the thunder, said John Jensenius, a lightning safety specialist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

“We don’t do any analysis or testing of the systems so that we can say how effective the various types of systems are. However, in terms of lightning detection it is something we do recommend if people can use the lightning detection system in addition to listening for thunder and watching for darkening skies,” Jensenius said.

“The good thing with this technology, in the case of the WeatherBug, is that it is a total lightning system,” he said. “It captures in-cloud lightning as well as cloud-to-ground and that usually gives you a little extra time before cloud-to-ground lightning. One of the real benefits is that if you need extra time to get people to a safe place, this allows you to monitor approaching or developing storms and get a heads-up on any lightning activity.”

Charlton likes the technological addition as opposed to just counting between light and rumble which “depends on personal interpretation of what you hear and see. This high-level technology component takes out the human element and is going to help the teachers and administrators to keep the children safe.”

According to researchers at the University of Florida, the state ranks No. 1 in deaths due to lightning, 94-percent of which occur between late May and the end of September. An average of 100 people are killed in the United States annually with 10 to 13 of those deaths occurring in Florida. Almost 600 are injured, 30 in Florida. The most prevalent area runs from St. Augustine north to Lake Okeechobee south.

Lightning kills more people in the United States than hurricanes and tornados combined, the university reports.

Veloso, who runs the Chevron gas station on Southwest Eighth Street and 22nd Avenue, which has been in his family since the 1960s, decided to underwrite the WeatherBug after touring the school during its capital campaign project about a year ago.

Said Veloso, “Giving parents, my neighbors and total strangers the peace of mind that their children and others are in a safe environment is priceless.”

Follow @HowardCohen on Twitter.

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