A shocking experience

Lightning: A county counilman's house is struck, highlighting the threat storms pose.

June 29, 2000|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

A bright white glow burst from the computer modem in Howard County Councilman Christopher J. Merdon's home, as the device blew apart, the pieces flying past his startled face as the lights went out in the home his family had occupied for just a week.

"I thought he was dying," Michelle Merdon, his wife, said about the 29-year-old councilman, who was downstairs just before midnight Sunday when lightning struck. "I just heard him yelling," she said.

Sparks flew from electrical outlets, scorching the carpeting, he said. The lightning also destroyed the alarm system and the garage door opener, along with the telephone and the computer hard drive. Outside, under the lawn, the metal water pipes were burned and broken. In a split second, the home lost power, water and telephone service, and plunged Merdon into a panic.

"A big white ball came through the cable line. I've never been so scared in my life. I thought somebody had bombed our house," the Ellicott City Republican said.

The house did not catch fire, though Merdon called the fire department. The 5-year-old house is in the Governor's Run development off U.S. 40.

When workers dug up the front lawn to fix the broken water pipe, they found it blackened by the power surge. Yesterday, Merdon said another bulge had developed elsewhere in the lawn, indicating another water leak.

By all accounts the Merdons were lucky.

A lightning strike caused a fire and more than $200,000 damage at a Long Reach house June 18, and a Virginia man was killed and nine people injured recently when lightning struck a tree they had gathered under during an Annapolis rugby tournament.

According to information gathered by the National Lightning Safety Institute of Louisville, Colo., lightning has killed more than 8,300 people in the United States since 1940, and annual damage estimates range from $35 million to $2 billion, including airline operating costs and passenger delays. Insurance industry estimates are $1 billion in residential damage annually from the electrical surges.

Richard Kithil, president and chief executive officer of the institute, a private group, said people should unplug valuable or unprotected electrical appliances during a close lightning storm or buy quality surge protectors for them. "The absolute safest thing is to pull the plug out of the wall," he said.

It's also wise to stay off the phone during a storm, because the electricity is looking for a path to ground, and if you're holding a phone or appliance, you could become part of that circuit. There's no foolproof way to prevent a lightning strike because they are unpredictable. Even lightning rods are "of dubious value," Kithil said.

Lightning rods are pointed metal rods placed high on buildings and grounded at their lower ends to act as conductors and to divert lightning from other parts of the building.

Howard County fire Capt. Kenneth Byerly said the department usually gets one or two lightning strike calls per electrical storm, but most involve minor damage, such as roof shingles knocked off or a damaged chimney or rooftop antenna. New homes in the county are not required to have lightning rods, he said, though custom-home builders often suggest installing them. Merdon said his home has no lightning rod, but he is thinking about getting one.

Despite having no running water for three days and the disruption of electrical repairs, the Merdons lived at home through it all.

And despite the ordeal, the tumult and the dozens of firefighters in the house that night, 9-week-old April Merdon slept through it, her father said.

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