Storms and severe weather, like strong wind, lightning strikes, rain, flooding and hail can occur at any time. Not all storms are severe, yet they are one of the most damaging natural disasters in Australia and New Zealand causing extensive damage each year as well as loss of life.

You can find some easy ways to prepare yourself below and get reliable information from the Australian Bureau of Meteorology and New Zealand WeatherWatch.

Severe storms

The Bureau of Meteorology defines severe thunderstorms as those that produce any of the following:

  • Hailstones with a diameter of 2cm (the size of a $2 coin) or more

  • Wind gusts of 90kmh or greater

  • Overland flow, storm water or inundation

  • Tornadoes

Lightning storms

Thunderstorms are associated with a very tall cloud mass called a cumulonimbus cloud. Lightning happens when the negative charges (electrons) in the bottom of the cloud are attracted to the positive charges (protons) in the ground.

Lightning heats the air around it to a temperature hotter than the surface of the sun! This rapid heating makes the air expand extremely quickly in a shock wave that we hear as thunder.

Lightning and thunder are dependent on each other but they are separate events. Lightning is electrical energy while thunder is sound energy.

Lightning safety:

  • You can determine the distance between you and the lightning strike by using the flash-to-bang rule:

    • For every five seconds, you count between seeing the lightning flash and hearing the thunder, there are approximately 1.5 kilometres between you and that lightning strike

  • Although fatal lightning strikes are freak accidents it is still important to know situations that can increase your risk, and how to protect yourself and avoid being struck

  • There are 5 ways lightning strikes people:

    • Direct Strike - a person struck directly by lightning becomes a part of the main lightning discharge channel. Most often, direct strikes occur to victims who are in open areas. Direct strikes are not as common as the other ways people are struck by lightning, but they are often the most deadly.

    • Side Flash - a side flash (also called a side splash) occurs when lightning strikes a taller object near the victim and a portion of the current jumps from the taller object to the victim. Most often, side flash victims have taken shelter under a tree to avoid rain or hail.

    • Ground Current - when lightning strikes a tree or other object, much of the energy travels outward from the strike in and along the ground surface. Anyone outside near a lightning strike is potentially a victim of ground current. In addition, ground current can travel on garage floors with conductive materials.

    • Conduction - lightning can travel long distances in wires or other metal surfaces. Metal does not attract lightning, but it provides a path for lightning to follow. Whether inside or outside, anyone in contact with anything connected to metal wires, plumbing, or metal surfaces that extend outside is at risk. This includes anything that plugs into an electrical outlet, water faucets and showers, corded phones, and windows and doors

    • Streamers - while not as common as the other types of lightning injuries, people caught in “streamers” are at risk of being killed or injured by lightning. Streamers develop as the downward-moving leader approaches the ground. Typically, only one of the streamers makes contact with the leader as it approaches the ground and provides the path for the bright return stroke; however, when the main channel discharges, so do all the other streamers in the area. If a person is part of one of these streamers, they could be killed or injured during the streamer discharge even though the lightning channel was not completed between the cloud and the upward streamer

    Situations that increase your risk

    • Using landline telephones during thunderstorms

    • Being near an object that was struck by lightning, can include using a tree as shelter

    • Being out in an open area

    • Being wet, wet skin is less resistant to the electrical current increasing the case of fatal electrical shocks

    First aid for a lightning strike

    1. Call for medical emergency help immediately - dial triple zero (000) in Australia or triple one (111) in New Zealand.

    2. The victim will not have any electrical charge on them so it is safe for you to touch them.

    3. Follow the DRSABCD algorithm.

    4. Check if the person is conscious and responsive. If they are not responsive, look, listen and feel for breathing

    5. If their breathing is normal, place the person in the recovery position and continue to monitor their condition for signs of deterioration.

    6. If they are not breathing normally, commence CPR.

    7. Continue CPR until help arrives or the person begins breathing normally.

    8. If they have sustained electrical burns, place the burnt area under cool running water for 20 minutes. Cover the burns with a sterile gauze bandage or clean cloth. Do not use a towel as the loose fibres can stick to the burns.

Storm preparation

If you know a storm is on its way, there are a few simple things you should do to protect yourself and your property. The State Emergency Service advises that you should:

  • Move vehicles under cover or away from trees.

  • Secure or put away loose items around your house, yard and balcony.

  • Keep at least 8 metres away from fallen power lines or objects that may be energised, such as fences.

  • Trees that have been damaged by fire are likely to be more unstable and more likely to fall.

  • Report fallen power lines to either Ausgrid (131 388), Endeavour Energy (131 003), Essential Energy (132 080) or Evoenergy (131 093) as shown on your power bill.

  • Stay vigilant and monitor conditions. Note that the landscape may have changed following bushfires.

  • For emergency help in floods and storms in Australia, ring your local SES Unit on 132 500. In New Zealand, contact your local civil defence unit, which is responsible for help during national disasters including severe weather events.

Staying safe when a storm hits

Storms can occur year-round and can often crop up with little warning. Below are some of the key tips for staying safe when a thunderstorm hits. According to the BOM:

  • If you're swimming or surfing, leave the water immediately

  • Seek shelter in a 'hard-top' (metal-bodied) vehicle or solid building

  • Stay inside

  • Shelter away from windows, doors and skylights

  • Avoid sheltering under trees. If you are in an open area, crouch in a hollow (alone with your feet together) and avoid being the highest object in the vicinity

  • If powerlines are damaged by the storm, stay far away from them.

  • Stay familiar with the updates from BOM and WeatherWatch which give regular updates on weather conditions

  • Call 000 (AUS) or 111 (NZ) if your life is in danger. For non-life-threatening storm damage, call the SES on 132 500 in Australia or your local civil defence unit in New Zealand

If you're caught outside in a bad storm, try not to panic. Sonder members can access help via phone or live chat from the Support tab of the Sonder app for the best course of action and immediate assistance.

Quick Links:

If you have any questions or need extra support, we're here to help you anytime, in any language. Simply start a chat with us via the home screen of the Sonder app.

Information sourced from: ABC, BOM,, Australia-wide first aid, QLD Swimming.

Image credit: Raychel Sanner, Unsplash.

All content is created and published for informational purposes only. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice. Always seek the guidance of a qualified health professional.

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