Lightning struck Catalina hours before it hit Venice: Why didn't anyone call?

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The lightning strike that hit Venice Beach at 2:20 p.m. on Sunday — killing a 20-year old surfer and injuring 13 others — followed an earlier strike that hit a 57-year-old man on a golf course near Avalon on Catalina Island. Yet it's unclear if anyone reported the Catalina strikes to the L.A. County Fire Department or warned Lifeguard Operations in L.A.

And there is no warning system for such a situation, officials said. Venice Beach lifeguard Capt. Danny Douglas told KPCC that news of the Catalina lightning strikes did not reach him at Venice Beach Sunday. "We've never had anything like this happen before, and we've never had any protocols for that," he said.  "We'll probably be developing some here shortly."

There are no protocols for clearing the beaches during lightning storms like the rare but deadly one that struck Venice Beach on Sunday, according to lifeguard officials with the Los Angeles County Fire Department.

The 57-year old man hit by lightning near Avalon was transported to a local hospital on the island in stable condition. At 1:35 p.m., according to bulletins issued by NWS in Los Angeles later in the day, a power line pole in Redondo Beach was struck by lightning and three homes nearby had electrical damage.

Less than an hour later, a strong single lightning bolt struck Venice Beach. Most of the people who were shocked by the lightning were either in the water or near it, said emergency responders.

A lifeguard management manual produced by the Red Cross recommends following the National Lightning Safety Institute, which says to wait 30 minutes after hearing the last thunderclap or seeing lightning before returning to the water.

The New York State Department of Health follows similar protocols

"Typically in other places, they would clear the beaches," Douglas said. "They would have a warning system in place. We don’t have that.”

Thunderstorms formed late Sunday morning and moved north toward Avalon and Catalina Island, said Mark Johnson, meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Los Angeles. He said the NWS forecasted a 20 percent chance of thunderstorms for the coastal areas.

Johnson said the NWS often warns local fire departments when there's major weather warnings in their area, but no severe thunderstorm warning was ever issued for Sunday's storms, and the L.A. County lifeguards were not called.

"The storms we had yesterday were not large enough to actually force any warning," he said. "For an actual warning to occur, we need winds of over 58 miles an hour or hail of an inch or larger."

The NWS in Los Angeles/Oxnard sent a marine weather statement at 10:19 a.m. Sunday alerting mariners and boaters from Point Mugu to San Mateo Point, including Santa Catalina and Anacapa Islands, of scattered and isolated thunderstorms moving across the southern coastal waters with strong gusty winds and "deadly lightning that can strike up to 10 miles away from thunderstorms."

Many witnesses said it was raining at Venice Beach right before lightning struck, and a dark cloud could be seen rolling, but people continued to swim anyway.

"It was lightning out there, but I didn't think it was going to come in at us," said Vern Williams, a fisherman who witnessed the bolt Sunday from the Venice Beach pier.

There were no orders to clear the beach. Then a big boom – one lightning bolt at 2:20 p.m. at Venice Beach — lit up the sky.

It literally made the hair stand up on Glen Walsh's head. "I thought something had exploded," he said "It was so loud!"

The 45-year old surfer was in the water an hour before the storm arrived, but he was lucky enough to be out walking his dog when the lightning struck.

"I'd rather live my life and enjoy it than fear things," Walsh said. "I get more worried in traffic."

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