Lightning's Scary and Damaging Power

By Jon Erdman
Published: June 26, 2014

Lightning vs. Homes/Buildings

AT&T building in Atlanta getting lit up by storm. (iwitness/pspittman)

Lightning strikes cost $969 million in U.S. homeowners insurance losses in 2012, with the average cost per claim at $6,400, the Insurance Information Institute reports.

According to NOAA, roughly 4,400 house fires and another 1,800 other structure fires are triggered by lightning each year.

Lightning doesn't have to directly strike your home to be dangerous.  

The average 15,000 amps of current can conduct through metal pipes or wires extending outside your home, and can also travel along any metal bars or wiring in concrete walls or floors.  

Therefore, it's not only important to find substantial shelter (any building with plumbing and/or electricity), but also to avoid use of any electrical device or plumbing fixture inside the building during the storm. Need to take a bath or shower? Wait until the storm is over. Have a corded phone? Use your cell phone or wait out the storm.

According to the National Lightning Safety Institute, 30 percent of power outages annually in the U.S. are due to lightning strikes.  

While any direct strike can trigger a house fire in the absence of a lightning rod, some lightning strikes feature a longer-duration flow of current. These "continuing current" strokes, or "hot lightning", can heat up any object just enough to trigger a fire.

Skyscrapers act as giant lightning rods, and can be struck multiple times in the same thunderstorm, as occurred at the Empire State Building in New York City on April 13, 2011.

A warehouse in Denver was struck and caught fire in July 1997.  The $50 million in damage was the costliest civilian lightning loss in U.S. history, according to Dr. Greg Forbes, severe weather expert with The Weather Channel (Twitter | Facebook).   

Lightning strikes can also trigger explosions.

Petroleum storage tanks are especially vulnerable to lightning: 16 of 20 explosions involving them were caused by lightning strikes, according to a 1995 study in the Journal of Hazardous Materials cited by the National Lightning Safety Institute.

A single lightning strike at a U.S. Naval Munitions dump in Lake Denmark, N.J. killed 19, injured 78, and left $50 million in damage in 1926.

Next, see what lightning can do to vehicles and planes.

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