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Venice Lightning Victim Describes Her 'Surreal' Experience

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This weekend's rare lightning strike near the pier on Venice Beach killed a 20-year-old and injured a dozen in the path of the charge in the water and on the sand.

One of those was Kelsey Hess, an Arizona State University student home for the summer in South Pasadena, who writes about her experience at Zocalo Public Square. Hess planned on making a short stop at the beach with two of her girlfriends that day. She was wading knee-deep in the ocean when the lightning struck just behind her. Hess literally did not know what hit her. She describes her confusion and the chaotic scene:

A huge roar echoed across the beach, and my body refused to turn around, for fear of seeing that a bomb had gone off around me. I still had my Starbucks coffee and flip-flops in my hands, but those hands had gone numb. Seconds later, the bright light disappeared, and the thunder was replaced with sounds of chaos on the beach. We ran, out of instinct, to shelter, which was out of the water and under the pier. As Sam and Amanda caught their breath, my attention was focused on my left kneecap, which was tingling. As I reached down to touch it, I became very aware of my hands. The joints in my fingers felt tender, and my hands were suddenly tingling as well.

As I glanced around the beach, trying to make sense of the last 10 seconds, I heard Amanda telling Sam that it was lightning. Amanda told me that the bolt had hit the water directly behind me, just 30 or so feet away. I would later learn, via the Weather Channel, that the lightning strike electrified the water for about 50 yards around it. I had been standing knee-deep in what they called the “hot zone.” My left leg was closest to the deep water, so the shock may have entered through that extremity and exited through my hands.

Hess felt well enough to drop off her friends and head back to her home in South Pasadena. But she writes that she couldn't stop replaying the "surreal scene" in her head, and her arms suddenly felt sore. She managed to pick up food at the store and make herself a grilled cheese sandwich at home when she started feeling strange:
My eyes wanted to close, and suddenly my body felt cold. I reached up to itch my neck and froze. I looked down as I ran my finger across my neck. The tingly feeling I had felt in my knee and my fingers earlier that day was spreading. It felt as though there were eight layers of skin between my fingertips and the rest of my body. The inside of my elbow became achy, and my muscles became sore with every second that my arm was elevated to reach my neck. The nerves throughout my body felt both electrified and numb. I lay very still as I called for my parents to come upstairs. When they arrived, my eyes were glassy, and my shallow breaths came and went quickly. It felt like an electric wave was moving up and down my left leg, across my torso. I squirmed on my bed to try and shift the sensation but it had no effect.

Paramedics checked her out, and when they said she seemed to be okay, she waved them away. She slept some more and writes that she now feels fine.
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The description of her symptoms are pretty typical. Lightning victims don't typically have serious burns—it's their nervous systems, including their brains, that take a hit. The National Weather Service says muscle soreness, headache, nausea, mental cloudiness, dizziness and other post-concussion-like symptoms are very common and resolve themselves after a few days—if you survive the initial strike and don't go into cardiac arrest. Some survivors have long-term issues, like chronic pain from nerve damage or symptoms that don't show up right away—like a personality change.

By all accounts, Venice's lightning storm was freakish. The storm seemed to come out of nowhere, and lightning is relatively rare in Southern California anyway. But that was part of the problem, too. A 57-year-old man was struck by lightning on a golf course on Catalina Island before the storm moved toward the mainland, but no one warned Venice Beach lifeguard Capt. Danny Douglas: "We've never had anything like this happen before, and we've never had any protocols for that. We'll probably be developing some here shortly."

Hopefully, this weekend's rare lightning storm won't put on a repeat performance any time soon, but the National Weather Service has safety tips about what to do when you hear thunder. The #1 rule: get inside or in a car.