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Fort Myers lightning death spurs safety effort

Oct. 17, 2012
WINK News Chief Meteorologist Jim Farrell broadcasts the weather Wednesday 8-24-11 at WINK News in Fort Myers.
WINK News Chief Meteorologist Jim Farrell broadcasts the weather Wednesday 8-24-11 at WINK News in Fort Myers. / Lindsay Terry/
WINK News meteorologis Jim Farrell discusses a lightning strike that occurred at 4:05 pm Wednesday October 3. It is believed to be the same lightning bolt which struck Jesse Watlington. / Courtesy of WINK News

Lightning deaths

From 2006-July 31, 2012
• Lee County: Three - plus Jesse Watlington last week
• Collier County: Two injuries, no deaths
• Broward County: Four
• Hillsborough County: One
• Miami Dade County: Two
Source – The National Weather ServiceBoltMeter Lightning – The app’s My Storm Tracker detects lightning and provides real-time information on distance and direction. Available for iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch. $1.99
WeatherBug Elite – Alerts to approaching lightning and potentially dangerous weather. Available for iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch. $1.99
Lightning Finder –– Displays lightning strikes in real time. Available for iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch. Free

A memorial service was held for lightning strike victim Jesse Watlington Thursday, October 11 at McGregor Baptist Church in Fort Myers. / Sarah Coward/The News-Press


Almost two weeks after the death of a 11-year-old boy, people in Lee County and beyond have mobilized to keep their children safe from lightning.

Jesse Watlington was fatally struck by lightning while heading onto the football field for practice at Southwest Florida Christian Academy. He died four days later at Tampa General Hospital when his parents decided to end life support.

Now, schools, sports teams and parents want better lightning detection equipment. Watlington’s school and the Lee County school board have set aside money for new equipment, and Lee County Parks & Recreation is considering doing the same.

“Our children’s lives are at stake every time they take a field,” said Amy Sica, mother of three boys who play football at Temple Christian School in North Fort Myers.

Sica started a petition on pushing to make early warning lightning detection equipment mandatory for all schools and playing fields. The proposed legislation would be called the Jesse Watlington Act. Since the petition was started Oct. 9, more than 3,600 people have signed, including from as far away as New York and Oklahoma. Sica also has sent the petition to members of Congress and is waiting to hear back, but some legislators say turning a petition into law can be a long shot.

Early warning

Coaches at Southwest Florida Christian Academy used a hand-held lightning detector the day Watlington was struck. But the middle school student was hit by one of the storm’s first lightning strikes. The hand-held device, which cannot predict lightning before it happens, proved useless.

Early warning systems, such as those Sica wants to make mandatory, predict lightning by measuring electrical charge in the air and sounding an alarm when a strike is possible.

Florida is known as the lightning capital of the nation.

Southwest Florida Christian Academy has decided to install a prediction system in light of Watlington’s death. A final cost has not been established, but the equipment is estimated to cost $10,000 – money donated by the community, said Pastor Richard Powell of MgGregor Baptist Church, which is affiliated with the school.

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“It’s fairly pricey,” Powell said in an email, “but needed.”

Jim Farrell, WINK meteorologist, said the problem with lightning prediction equipment is it uses experimental software. It’s expensive and it’s not foolproof, he said.

“There is no perfect system to predict lightning before the thunderstorm produces the first lightning bolt,” Farrell said.

Parks concerned

Lee County Parks & Recreation has early warning detectors at three parks and a regular detector at one. There are about 15 parks and pools in the county with no form of lightning detection, parks and recreation manager Alise Flanjack said.

The department met Tuesday to discuss installing additional lightning detection equipment. There isn’t enough money to equip all 15 sites, but it might be feasible to split the cost with teams and organizations that use the fields and pools, Flanjack said. The lightning prediction device installed at Terry Park cost $3,000-4,000, she said.

Since Watlington’s death, several teams and organizations have voiced interest in better lightning detection. “They’re all talking,” Flanjack said.

Howard Gold, president of south Fort Myers Little League, would love to see a lightning detector constructed where his team plays at Rutenberg Community Park. Gold monitors lightning with a weather tracker app on his smart phone and a hand-held lightning detector that cost about $200. The problem is, that leaves the team’s safety in his hands.

“I think lightning decisions are some of the worst and hardest decision I’ve ever had to make,” Gold said, “and certainly have the worst implications if you’re wrong.”

His team probably could pitch in money if parks and recreation decides to install detectors, Gold said.

Art Phillips, president of the Estero Mustangs Pop Warner football team, said he would feel safer if their practice field at the Estero Community Park Recreation center installed a detector.

The hand-held lightning detector Phillips carries leaves room for error, he said.

Michael Lewis, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service office in Tampa, agrees.

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“Generally the permanent detectors are better,” he said.

Schools take action

Last week, the Lee County school board voted to put $200,000 toward installing and upgrading lightning detection equipment at all district high schools. It has not been determined if the equipment will require the entire $200,000, spokesman Joe Donzelli said in an email.

New devices will be installed at the nine high schools without, and existing devices will be upgraded at four high schools. The school board chose to focus on high schools because of the volume of extracurricular activities on those campuses, Donzelli said. He said he did not know if the devices will be for lighting prediction or lightning detection.

All Collier County schools use lightning prediction equipment. The more expensive units cost about $10,000, with an additional $9,800 per year in maintenance.

The Florida High School Athletic Association does not require lightning detection devices on athletic fields. Guidelines require fields and stadiums be evacuated if lightning can be seen or thunder heard.

The petition's future

Sica hopes legislators will listen to her plea and make early lightning detection equipment mandatory.

She forwarded her petition to the offices of U.S. Rep. Connie Mack IV and U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, both of Florida, but has not heard back. Neither legislator returned requests for comment Wednesday.

State Representative Kathleen Passidomo, of district 76, said she’d like to know who will pay for the proposed lightning equipment.

Installing devices in every school and park in Florida could probably bankrupt the state, Passidomo said.

“It’s a terrible accident,” Passidomo said of Watlington’s death. “And you know what? We can’t legislate prevention on every accident that’s going to occur.”

State Senator Michael Bennett, of district 21, said it’s likely the issue will never cross his desk.

“Very rarely,” he said, “have I ever seen one become law because of the petition.”

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