Lightning Property Damage: How to “Lighten” Your Risk
Minnesotans know that despite the rather cold and stormless April, we are now entering into prime thunderstorm season, and that means lightning strikes. Lightning displays can be both beautiful and dangerous. Many are enthralled with highly active nighttime storms. While they cost us sleep, people enjoy them, and some are even soothed by the strobe-like fireworks. Lightning is good for the environment too. Nitrogen in the atmosphere is not available for plants to absorb; the energy caused by lightning converts it into a form that can be absorbed by plants.
The ensuing rain has very few other nutrients in it so the ratio of nitrogen in the rain is high which encourages leafy growth and promotes good leaf color. Thus, a thunderstorm is effectively a giant liquid fertilizing event that not only provides your garden with life-giving water but also ample nitrogen that encourages leafy plant growth. We also enjoy the sweet, pungent, ozone smell following the storm.
Alternatively, insurance industry professionals know that lightning can also produce costly property damage. Every spring, summer, and sometimes even fall, Lindstrom Restoration responds to lightning strike fires. Some involve minimal damage, but others are more serious, inflicting hundreds of thousands in losses.
There is a cost to human life as well. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), about 40 million lightning strikes hit the ground in the United States every year resulting in injury and death. Although that number seems high, the odds of being struck by lightning in any given year are less than one in a million, and almost 90% of all lightning strike victims survive. However, there are factors that can put individuals at a higher risk of being struck by lightning. One is obvious. Failing to seek indoor protection in either a building or vehicle puts people at risk. Not wanting to get wet, people compound their risk by standing under trees. On June 14th, 1991, a Minnesotan died, and five others were injured when a lightning bolt hit a 20-foot willow tree during the U.S. Open at Hazeltine National Golf Course in Chaska, MN
Southeastern states are the most at risk when lightning strikes, according to the CDC. In addition, men are four times more likely than women to be struck by lightning, and the average age of a person struck is 37. While lightning can occur during any time of the year, most lightning deaths occur during the summer months, especially in July. On top of that, lightning deaths often occur on weekends —particularly Saturdays— and in the afternoons. “In fact, two out of three lightning deaths occur between noon and 6 p.m.,” according to the CDC.
According to the CDC, there have been 5 lightning deaths in Minnesota from 2006 to 2021. The highest number of lightning deaths has been reported in Florida, at 79. On the other side, Alaska, Delaware, New Hampshire, and Washington have had no lightning deaths reported in the same timeframe.
Let’s dispel a couple of myths regarding lightning. There is no such thing as heat (or silent) lightning on a dark night. The flashes you may see but can’t hear are actual thunderstorms happening as far as 200-plus miles away. Second, they say that lightning doesn’t strike twice in the same place. Wrong! The Empire State Building in New York is hit on average 23 times a year!
Now that we’ve established that lightning strikes during summer are an annual threat, albeit a small one, there are some safeguards homeowners can take to shield their homes. Homeowners can protect themselves and their property by installing lightning protection systems. Commonly called lightning rods, these systems effectively absorb and neutralize destructive electrical energy. Now that the weather is warming, it’s a good time for homeowners to install these systems as local companies may be offering seasonal deals.
It is surprising more people don’t protect against this hazard as lightning losses each year average close to a billion dollars in the United States! People tend to think about hail, wind, and flooding more when property loss is considered, yet firefighters will tell you that lightning-caused fires are common. At Lindstrom, we have seen many lightning fires over the years. We responded to a few lightning fires last summer, but so far, the cooler weather has kept lightning at bay.
Tall objects are the most vulnerable to lightning strikes. Larry, our Lindstrom sales representative, fondly remembers his late father’s advice to buy a house on high ground to avoid flooding and water damage. He followed through on that advice. The result? He didn’t have any water damage issues, but to his surprise, his highly elevated neighborhood near Buck Hill Ski Area was struck many times. The area has the highest elevation in the Twin Cities.
Larry witnessed 5 house lightning-caused fires in his neighborhood during the 18 years he lived there. Two sustained heavy fire and smoke damage. “Ole Pop” never warned him about lightning. “Almost every thunderstorm there were very close hits that practically knocked my wife and me out of bed,” he said. “Those sleepless nights and my experience working for a restoration company changed me from being a thunderstorm lover to a hater. To make things worse, my dog goes nuts during lightning and thunder events. Storms used to put me asleep in my youth. Now they keep me up, and I am a tired mess the next day.”
Had Larry stayed in his old house he says he would have considered getting a lightning protection system. These systems are specifically designed to protect structures and personal property by providing a conduit to harness and safely ground a powerful lightning bolt. This isn’t a do-it-yourself job and is better left to professionals who will ensure the system is installed according to National Fire Protection Association, Lightning Protection Institute, and UL requirements.
Protection is provided for all electrical, telephone, cable, and satellite lines entering the structure. It makes sense when you consider that most people now have thousands of dollars tied up into expensive stereos, HD smart TVs, and computers. One strike can destroy them (as well as appliances) and possibly cause fire damage. Who wants that damage and resulting hassle?
Affordability is an issue when considering a lightning protection system, especially in these economic times. Those who can’t afford them may wish to equip their homes with high-quality power surge protectors. Shop carefully here. Not all power strips provide maximum protection.
A direct hit isn’t necessary. We know one person who suffered damage when a bolt current moved through the ground to an electrical line to his house blowing out every electrical appliance except an unplugged TV. Fortunately, nothing caught fire.
We’ve all been schooled in lightning protection. Follow the usual common-sense advice when you hear thunder approach. Avoid open water, trees, poles, fences, rails, etc. Stay off bikes, golf carts, and RVs. Remain in your car when driving. While inside, don’t use the phone. Keep distance from open windows, doorways, electrical appliances, metal piping, plumbing, sinks, tubs, and radiators (lightning strikes water lines too!). We know someone who got zapped while taking a shower (he survived)! Unplug expensive electronics and appliances when an active storm approaches. More information is available from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) lightning safety page: http://lightningsafety.noaa.gov/
If you suffer smoke or fire damage from lightning (and water losses) you will require professional clean-up and repair services. Lindstrom Restoration is available to respond to your customer needs. Many local fire departments refer us for temporary board-ups when fires occur as we do a fast and professional job. Call us at 763-544-8761 for immediate response 24/7/365!