Encore: When Lightning Strikes
Anyone who has been in a home hit by lightning will tell you the sound can be deafening and the experience somewhat disorienting. Julie, a homemaker from Lakeville, Minn., recalls the instant turmoil. "It sounded like an explosion right outside our living room window, one that shook the house to the point of knocking pictures off the walls."
Ever notice that lightning and the lottery are frequently linked? We often compare our chances of getting struck with the odds of suddenly striking it rich.
The reality is that you--like Julie and her family--will probably experience a lightning strike before a gambling windfall. More than 100,000 thunderstorms occur in the U.S. each year, with lightning striking more than 30 million points on the ground during that same period.
Individuals are--on the whole--relatively safe if they take simple precautions. Your home may not be so lucky. Because lightning damage is largely unreported, statistics vary considerably. The insurance industry, however, estimates 6.5% of all property/casualty claims are related to lightning strikes.
A typical bolt of lightning can result in heat of up to 50,000 degrees Fahrenheit. Naturally, the odds of a resulting fire are great. Often such fires may not be immediately noticeable, emanating in attic space or within the walls of the home. Even if there is no visible flame, responding firefighters quickly can determine whether there is an immediate hidden danger.
Perhaps even more common than fire damage is the electrical chaos resulting from severe power surges following a lightning strike. While a typical household normally will experience everyday flows of up to 220 volts, lightning voltage measures in the tens of millions.
Firefighters only will assess the present existence of fire.
The good news is you're not completely at risk. Virtually all houses are equipped with some level of surge protection. Surprisingly, the average home has thousands of surges each year, most caused by everyday devices. Power tools, refrigerators, and hair dryers are among the usual surge suspects.
This "whole house" protection is different from the devices you may have connected to various appliances within the home. The surge protector used with a personal computer, for example, is simply an added level of precaution.
Your home also should be grounded, meaning there is an alternative path around the electrical system that is intentionally connected to the earth. The National Electric Code requires home electric systems to be grounded. If you suspect inadequate grounding in your home, a licensed electrician can perform an evaluation.
When lightning strikes, proper surge protection and grounding usually will spare a home's electrical system from complete destruction. Many of the residing appliances won't be so lucky. The speed and sheer magnitude of a strike can and will render many electrical systems useless, burning out circuit boards in less than a second.
Like other natural disasters, lightning carries with it a sense of inconsistency and mystery. Just as a tornado leaves a single house standing in a neighborhood of devastation, a lightning-induced surge seems to randomly choose victims among the dozens of appliances in your home.
Among the most common to fall prey to a strike are telephones and personal computers, likely due to their multiple outlets. Both are connected to potential strike paths through electrical outlets and phone lines.
Approximately 6.5% of property/casualty claims are related to lightning strikes.
Therefore, the best defense is to remove such appliances from the path of the surge. Unplug computers and telephones from electrical outlets and phone lines during a thunderstorm. Don't rely on any surge protector to keep such appliances out of harm's way.
More important, make sure the occupants of the home follow a similar rule. The warnings you recall from childhood are true--when a storm is in the air, avoid contact with electrical appliances. Lightning may strike nearby electric and phone lines, traveling to your home from there. For added safety, avoid water and stay clear of doors and windows.
Exterior damageOne would imagine that the force of a lightning strike would cause considerable exterior and possibly even structural damage, particularly at the point where the bolt hits the home. While such blows can and do result in some level of disrepair, the strike contact often causes little or no damage to the home. A typical lightning bolt is only about as wide as a half-dollar, and damage done at the point of contact may not be much larger.
After the strike
Julie, the homeowner we introduced at the beginning, recalls, "All at once the children were crying, the dog was barking, and the smoke alarms were sounding. It took more than a few moments to realize what had happened."
Once the realization sets in, the steps are simple:
2) Call the fire department immediately.
3) After firefighters complete their task, call a qualified electrician for an emergency evaluation.
Due to the high potential for fire, your first move should be to vacate the premises, opting for the safety of a neighbor's home. And for the same reason, your first call should be to your local fire department.
The best defense is to remove appliances from the path of the surge.
Even if fire is minimal or not found, your next call is to schedule emergency service from a qualified and licensed electrician. Remember, firefighters only will assess the present existence of fire. An electrician will assess and prevent future potential fire. Your electrician also will begin to catalog damaged appliances.
Your next call
Once your home is deemed safe, begin the process of damage assessment and reconstruction. Your next call is to your insurance agent. Chances are good that your homeowner's policy will cover lightning strikes and most resulting fire or electrical damage.
Your agent typically can provide tips and suggestions, and immediately should begin the process of filing your claim. Repairing fire-damaged property and fixing or replacing appliances come with hefty price tags. Be aware that many repairpeople will expect immediate payment for their services, so it's important to encourage your insurance company for prompt reimbursement.
A lightning strike lasts only a fraction of a second, but a comprehensive damage assessment can take months. Give yourself time to evaluate your unique situation. Only then will you ensure that you've addressed any lasting effects of the strike, even after the initial storm has passed.
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