If lightning strikes, is your home ready?
The crackling blue juice enters through phone lines, TV cables, antennas and invisible dog fences. It fries computers and burns down houses. Here's how to protect your home.
It was 5 a.m. on a Tuesday in June 2009 when lightning struck Wil and Barb Snuffin's big, old, three-story antebellum home outside Harrisburg, Va. They were lying in bed in the dark, the bedroom window open.
First came thunder, "like an artillery bombardment," says Wil Snuffin, who remembered the sound from serving in the Army. Then lightning struck, so close that he felt the concussion in his chest. "There was no one-thousand-one, one-thousand-two kind of thing," he says. "It was immediate." (Bing: How to survive a lightning strike)
It took awhile for them to realize their house was on fire. First, they noticed that the electricity had quit working. That's because, as they later learned, the lightning hit the corner of the house and ran through the electrical system in the attic. In its dash to the ground, it sped through the home's old, unused — but still intact — knob-and-tube wiring. The blast blew light switches off the walls.
Lightning may enter a home through any kind of wiring — cable TV, electric or phone lines — unless the home has a lightning-protection system. It also will travel through plumbing pipes and water — even through water in a tub or coming out of a shower head, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
In the Snuffins' house, battery-operated smoke alarms were sounding off. And yet, there still was no sign of fire. "And then," Snuffin recalls, "I smell the odor of smoke."
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A bolt of lightning can produce temperatures of 50,000 degrees Fahrenheit. At the Snuffins' house, it shot through the attic roof and ignited the family's accumulation of treasures and junk.
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Snuffin, an emergency-room doctor, grabbed a fire extinguisher and ran into the attic. He plunged right into the billowing smoke. It smelled of burning plastic. And then reason took over. "I thought, 'Get the heck out of here,'" he recalls.
By then, flames were coming out of the attic windows and ladder trucks from the local volunteer fire department were arriving.
Firefighters saved the house. But the smoke and water did plenty of damage. The insurance company swooped in immediately, cataloging, bagging and sending off every affected item, no matter how mundane, for cleaning. The dry-cleaning bill alone was $18,000.
Damage from lightning — including fire — is covered by standard homeowners insurance, according to the Insurance Information Institute. Some policies also cover damage from electrical power surges caused by lightning. Some don't. Your agent can say if yours does.
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In the Snuffins' case, insurance paid "about a quarter-million dollars," which covered much but not all of the damage, Snuffin says. Making up the difference was expensive. And money wasn't all that was lost. Putting their home back together cost them a year of their lives.
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It does strike twice
In spite of what we've all heard, lightning does strike twice in the same place — and three times and four times. Or more.
"If you're in a home that's had a lightning strike, that’s definitely a warning for you," says Kim Loehr, spokeswoman for the Lightning Protection Institute. The nonprofit institute in Maryville, Mo., represents the lightning-protection industry and installers.
At the Snuffins' property, for instance, a large, aging locust tree in the yard had been hit several times before the lightning-induced house fire.
Not much is known about why. There are theories that some topographical feature or the presence or absence of water, metal, salt or other minerals in the ground might make a place a more likely target.
"The ground is energized, the clouds are energized, and it utilizes whatever is in its path," Loehr says.
Direct lightning strikes are rare, says the IEEE, a professional association of electrical engineers. Even so, damage claims from lightning strikes at 185,789 U.S. homes cost almost $800 million in 2008, according to the Insurance Information Institute.
Lightning is dangerous, too. It kills about 58 people yearly in the U.S. Last year just in Florida — the so-called lightning capital of the U.S. — five died of lightning-related causes.