Why does it take epic devastation to remind us of nature’s wrath and how helpless we are when it decides to take us on its terrifying course?
September 1, 2017
How do we begin to share a post about lightning in the midst of an epic weather event like Hurricane Harvey? As images of Harvey’s devastation are even difficult to view, we can’t begin to imagine how painful the reality of the hardship is for so many to bear. Dear people of Texas–including many of our LPI lightning protection member companies–our thoughts are with you today. Please know that your LPI friends are hoping and praying for your swift relief and rapid recovery.
When we reflect on hurricanes, memories take us back to Katrina and the massive suffering that settled on New Orleans and its surrounding areas. Then, we remember a tempest with winds that etched images of incredible devastation, which remain forever-fixed in our memories.
It was August of 1992, when Hurricane Andrew bore down and unleashed its wrath on South Florida. The monster storm’s effects would be far-reaching with massive devastation that unmasked serious deficiencies in the state’s building and construction practices. Every obliterated home (over 25,000 destroyed and another 100,000 + damaged), and every shattered life (a statistic we’ll never know), echoed the need for change. And change took hold; igniting a spirit of revitalization that gave birth to an energized disaster safety movement—one with a mission to make communities safer and more resilient.
A strengthening of building codes and construction practices to improve resiliency for homes to withstand flood and wind hazards meant quicker recovery and less reliance on federal tax dollars. A good thing, indeed! And as property owners also embraced ideals of green building and sustainability, construction planners took notice and began to design and deliver more options for “fortified” structures. (Shout-out to LPI partners at IBHS and Federal Alliance for Safe Homes–FLASH, for your good work, here!)
Fortifying homes and businesses to withstand hurricanes, floods, earthquakes and wildfires certainly makes sense, which is why protection against rain, wind, flood and fire is routinely included in our construction models and building codes. But what about lightning? After all, lightning is the weather peril that affects most people, most of the time, in the most areas of the country. Why is it that lightning remains the only naturally-occurring hazard to be ignored in the vast majority of U.S. building codes?
It’s hard to believe that even a state like Florida, where thunderstorms occur more often and do more harm than other weather disasters—has limited codes in place to address lightning. Is the fact that lightning is so common place, contributing to a complacency about its dangers?
When you consider the fact that safe, effective and affordable protection is available for lightning (unlike other significant weather threats) with proven Standard-compliant lightning protection systems (LPS), it just doesn’t make sense to keep ignoring an obvious threat! Especially when we see scientific reports like those authored by IEEE, NFPA or NOAA. For example, a 2013 IEEE abstract: “Residential Lightning Fires in the USA: An Overview”, cites lightning as responsible for an “estimated 6000 home fires in the U.S. each year; fires that are responsible for loss of life, injury and serious damage or destruction of home dwellings.” This study also points out, that while the “incidence of residential fires from all other causes has fallen dramatically over the past 30 years, lightning fires have increased in number.”
Fast forward to 2017 and what’s changed? Well, in a nutshell, more reports of lightning losses, and more forecasts for increased activity in upcoming years. Unfortunately, something which hasn’t changed is much-needed progress within the building code process to recognize a proven cost benefit analysis of LPS.
So, is it apathy about lightning, or attitudes about lightning protection that need to change? Either way, we can’t prevent lightning from striking. To quote author, Steven King, “Money can’t buy off the lightning.” On the heels of setbacks in recent industry efforts to improve safety and reduce lightning losses through various code processes, this quote may be especially ironic. And perhaps a bit prophetic, too, when you consider reports of record lightning losses for 2017 and scientific predictions for increased activity.
Sometimes, in this world (including in the world of lightning protection), we’re forced to accept the things we cannot change and just let nature take its course. But, whether it be ill-informed building code decisions or the uncanny wrath of Mother Nature, we can’t let obstacles prevent us from working harder and smarter to further the things we can control–things like education, awareness and enlightenment.
It’s called resilience. And you can’t put a price tag on that.