Fatal accident is reminder of campground safety - KWWL - Eastern Iowa Breaking News, Weather, Closings

Fatal accident is reminder of campground safety

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WATERLOO (KWWL) -

Grief counselors are helping staff and students this week at Kennedy High School in Cedar Rapids.  That's after one of the school's teachers died while camping over Memorial Day weekend.  31-year-old Jennifer Lewis died Sunday after a tree fell on her tent at Lake MacBride State Park.  Lewis taught chemistry at Kennedy.  The principal says it will be hard to move forward and replace such a wonderful teacher.

Cases like this are a reminder to all of us to be weather aware when spending time outside.  According to the National Weather Service, about 80 people die each year as a result of wind and lightning.

While there's no way to know for sure if Jennifer Lewis' death could've been prevented, there are some safety tips all campers should keep in mind when it comes to severe weather.

Before you ever leave for a camping trip, it's a good idea to check the weather forecast.  Planning for the possibility of bad weather, by packing supplies like a weather radio with extra batteries, can help you avoid being hurt during a storm.

Camping is a summer pastime many families enjoy.  But a nice day can quickly turn treacherous if severe weather strikes.  Two years ago, Pine Lake State Park was hit by a bad hail storm.

"We stayed in the camper. I was in there with my wife and four children, hunkered down and rode it out," said Tim Collins, who was camping at Pine Lake during a storm in August 2009.

And that's about the best thing you can do if you're camping during a storm.  But before you even pitch a tent or set up a camper, it's a good idea to take not of anything around you that could become a hazard during severe weather.

"When they set up camp, look at the surroundings, both up in the trees and the surrounding areas to see if there's any obstacles that could be flying around," said Gary Dusenberry, George Wyth State Park ranger.

At state parks, rangers will alert campers when severe thunderstorm watches and warnings are issued and will make personal contact with everyone in the park when tornados are near.

"It is very serious and people do need to be watching the weather, and keeping alert of their surroundings because you can have severe winds that can topple trees.  You can have hail and hail damage.  Being in a tent during a hail storm is probably not real safe," Dusenberry said.

So bottom line, when it comes to camping and severe weather, the best policy may be when in doubt, head indoors.  After all, you can typically hear thunder about 15 minutes away.  And that's a good indication you need to take shelter.

Taking cover in the closest building doesn't offer guaranteed protection.  But while camping, it's likely your best bet to avoid injury during a storm.

If there's no building near your campsite, experts say taking shelter in your car is still better than being outdoors or in a tent.  Your vehicle may even be able to absorb energy if there's a lightning strike nearby.

And if you're camping at a privately owned facility, and not a state park, it's a good idea to check with the site manager to determine the distance from the campgrounds to the nearest buildings.  Also, ask about their severe weather policies before you even make a reservation.

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