Thursday, 12 November 2009

Lightning phobia

The shuttle being struck by lightning. Image courtesy of NASA.

I've promised once or twice in my blog to tell the story about why I'm a little afraid of thunderstorms. The rather intense storms of the last couple of days, and the promise of more to come reminded me to tell the story.

My first experience of the tremendous amount of energy the atmosphere could dump on us was in early November 2000. For those of us that experienced the great storm of 2000 it was a truly unforgettable 24-hours. The rain started in mid-afternoon and by mid-evening Hilo bayfront was experiencing flooding. Despite the thunder and lightning I slept normally only to awake at sunrise with even heavier rain. Every major highway on the island had been taken out with parts of some roads simply gone - washed away into the ocean. An unbelievable 37-inches of rain fell at Kapapala Ranch in Ka`u in 24-hours and most of Hilo got well over 20-inches. Power was out everywhere and all major roads closed and certainly no chance of going to work for the day!

Roll on a few years to February 2004, at home around sunset and an approaching storm. The lightning looked spectacular so I went outside on the top-floor lanai to watch. Within a minute I witnessed one of my ohia trees get struck by lightning and explode. It was an utterly amazing sight, the tree, about fifty yards away, simply turned into a huge firework and was gone. It happened so close I thought it best not to stay on the lanai and head indoors and that's when all hell broke out.

It's hard to describe the next thirty minutes. A friend and colleague who could see Kaloli Point in the distance said this to me a couple of days later: "I looked over your way, I could see Kaloli Point was getting hammered!".

No exaggeration, for the next half an hour lightning was striking everything within a few hundred yards every few seconds. The noise was unbelievable and even though I thought about evacuating it meant a few seconds out in the open to get to my car and I considered it too risky. Better to stay inside than risk getting struck by lightning. Things were about to get worse though.

About 15 minutes after the tree exploded the lightning started to take aim at my house. Now, I know many of you have experienced intense thunderstorms, but have you ever been in a house that was struck by lightning? And not just once, at least three or four times. The first strike was the worst. No warning, just the loudest explosion you could imagine. The house shook and of course all the power went off. A minute later, another strike and another mini-earthquake. A few more followed and when the storm finally moved away after pausing overhead my house for half an hour I was sitting in the middle of the living room floor shaking. It felt as though I'd been under an artillery barrage.

Verizon came by the next day because I'd lost all my electronics including the phone and they found a what was left of a vaporized phone line lying at the edge of my yard. My roof-top TV antenna had turned black and I'd lost four palm trees in the front yard, all struck by lightning.

Move on another two years, February again and another tremendous thunderstorm sat over Kaloli. The rain was more of a problem this time and my lower lanai was flooding. The power had gone off, as usual, so to check how much water was collecting in the lanai I took a flashlight and looked through the screen door. I put my hand on the screen just to help me balance as I took a closer look and then zzzzzfffttt-BANG!

I saw the lightning - it struck about 10-yards away. I was thrown away from the screen door, my arm moving much quicker than the rest of my body! Another 30-minutes sat on the floor in sheer terror and my hand and arm tingling like mad. The tingling didn't stop in my hand until much later the next day.

2006 again but late in the year. On October 15th we had a large earthquake, magnitude 6.7, which caused an awful lot of damage. The next day another one of those thunderstorms that just love to sit over Kaloli Point. The house was struck again - I didn't hide under the bed with the cats but I thought about it.

The next day I was out inspecting the damage and saw my new neighbour doing the same thing. I shouted over to her and asked if she was OK. Her response was something I'll not forget - "I'm just glad I'm still alive!".

I used to love thunderstorms, in fact that was my father's main job at the Met Office in the UK and as a small kid I used to "help" him track and locate lightning strikes. Now they just scare me.

Postscript: The oddest thing about that storm in 2004 is that all of my expensive electronic equipment survived. OK, the TV displayed some really odd colours for the next month or two but I had an amplifying device on the antenna cable which took the brunt of the lightning strike. I wish I had kept it because it really didn't look anything like it used to before the storm. My telephones obviously blew up, the strike on the phone line took them out along with my computer's modem (but the rest of the computer was just fine). The weirdest one was my alarm clock radio. It would tell the time perfectly if it was between twelve and one o'clock but wouldn't work at any other time.


Beep said...

I feel like the Oct 16 one was my apologies...

Stay safe!

Fear of phones said...

I can understand why you are having a lightning phobia who will not after passing through an expirience like that

Keera Ann Fox said...

With experiences like that, no wonder you're afraid! It sounds to me like thunderstorms are far more (FAR more) severe than the ones here in northern Europe. (Where I live we hardly ever have them.)

Anonymous said...

That would scare the Bejesus out of me.

Tom said...


Thanks for your comments. I'm glad I'm perhaps not as big a wimp as I thought I'd come across, but those storms certainly had some psychological effect on me! I was getting very nervous just this last Saturday - a very intense thunderstorm was a few miles offshore and the NWS had it moving onshore right over this place, but fortunately it didn't happen!

Thanks again,

Ron said...

I was in a big thunderstorm up in Idaho a few years back with lightning hitting across the road out in the fields, but never closer than an 1/8th of a mile. You could sure smell it and the bangs were deafening.

It was scary, but awe inspiring at the same time. Mother Nature's power is awesome.

To be just feet from it and have it hit the house would be scary indeed.

Tom said...

Ron - I still love thunderstorms and their lightning shows - as long as they keep their distance!

The storms you get on the mainland are generally much more powerful than the ones we get here. I don't know about Idaho though, I wasn't aware that the state got big thunderstorms. Anyway, 1/8 of a mile is definitely preferable to 10 yards!

All the best,

Vegetating Vegan said...

No wonder you're afraid! It was a very interesting story--it would be perfect in a book and scary in a movie!

Tom said...

VV - it felt as though I was in a scary movie, especially that storm that took out the telephone line and TV antenna!