Raising an umbrella in an electrical storm

This past summer, I was fortunate enough to take my boys on a cross-country camping trip.  New Jersey to Yellowstone, Yosemite, Grand Canyon (North and South Rims), San Antonio, Miami Beach, and back to New Jersey.

In Grand Canyon, summertime is Monsoon Season, and it rained for a good part of our visit there.  On the last day of our visit, however, the sun was out, and we decided to take a hike.

Just in case of rain, we decided to stay out of the Canyon, and instead hiked along the Rim, from which we could take a shuttle bus back to our campsite.  We could see a storm over the canyon (see video), out to the east.  Being from New Jersey, I assumed that all storms move east, and that this violent-looking storm (with really cool lightning and thunder that you could actually see and hear from a distance) would move away from us.

I was wrong.  It was coming towards us.  At first it drizzled.  So I figured the best thing to do would be to stop and have lunch under a small tree (all the trees were pretty small).  I figured the storm would go in the other direction, away from us.

Then came the very loud thunder and lightning, the kind of thunder and lightning that happens simultaneously, in stereo, as if it is right above you.  My very sensible boys (who carefully studied the Park Guide that warns you not to stay on the rim during an electrical storm, and definitely not to sit under a tree on the rim during an electrical storm) wanted to move away from the tree.  But, looking around, I noticed that, besides this little tree, and besides a few other hikers, I was probably the tallest object around.  So we sat down, leaning against a three-foot high stone wall, in the rain, and prayed that the shuttle bus would arrive soon.

Then came the Asian tourists.  Judging from their sandals and umbrellas, I could tell that they weren’t experienced hikers, more likely Las Vegas tourists on a day-long bus trip.  But as the rain got heavier, several chivalrous Asian men took out their umbrellas to shield their female companions from the rain.

We American and European hikers, the kind who share friendly smiles and granola bars, etc., all conscientious members of the Sierra Club, who were slouched down against the wall, looked at each other, dumbfounded.  Should we warn our fellow travelers about the danger of erecting umbrellas in an electrical storm on the Rim of Grand Canyon? Or should we allow them to voluntarily offer the electrical storm a highest-metal-object-connected-to-the-ground?  After all, if lightning struck, it would strike the highest object – an open umbrella – rather than me or one of my boys.

We American and European hikers quietly slid along the wall, away from our Asian friends.

This was serious lightning – one person killed, and five people injured.

It would clearly have been the “right thing to do” to warn the Asian tourists to sit down and put away their umbrellas.  But there were many people around who seemed to know better, all probably very socially aware, who kept quiet.  Including myself.  Why?  Did we fear that, without their umbrellas, the lightning was more likely to strike one of us?  What were the chances?

Here’s my question for you accountants out there: It’s easy to talk about doing the right thing.  But when it comes to standing out on the Rim of Grand Canyon during an electrical storm, or risking your job to blow the whistle, are you ready to do “the right thing?”  When should you risk your own well being?

In case you’re wondering what happened, the bus eventually came and picked us all up, safe and sound.

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About Mark P. Holtzman

Chair of Accounting Department at Seton Hall University. PhD from The University of Texas at Austin. Worked at Deloitte's New York Office. BSBA from Hofstra University.

One comment

  1. Interesting. If ever I am confronted with this situation, I hope that I warn the tourist.

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