Surviving a lightning strike: Shock and awe

Swaddled in air-conditioned comfort, sipping a Diet Coke I hardly noticed the late afternoon thunderstorm that blew in last Friday. They're a common occurrence in central North Carolina in the summer time; so I continued with my work secure in my technological web.

Swaddled in air-conditioned comfort, sipping a Diet Coke I hardly noticed the late afternoon thunderstorm that blew in last Friday. They're a common occurrence in central North Carolina in the summer time; so I continued with my work secure in my technological web. In the background I could hear the kids watching another cartoon on the Tivo. Email flashed on the screen thanks to a high speed cable connection, which also brought VoIP telephone service. Entertainment, information, and contacts with friends and relatives through the Internet had so pervaded our lives that we had become spoiled by it, taking it for granted. That was about to change.

[ Don't miss part 2: Life without the Internet: Zapped off the grid ]

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What I'll remember most is the sound. To call it "loud" is simply not an adequate description. The sound was a physical force, a sledgehammer to the chest and a blow to the very foundations of reality. There was light as well of course--the whole world turning white for an instant--but light I can deal with. There is no number on the decibel scale that can do justice to that sound. It was so sudden and unexpected. You're supposed to see the lightning first, and then hear the thunder. 1 Mississippi, 2 Mississippi, 3, count the seconds to tell how far away it is. Not this time. Impossibly, the sound seemed to happen before the flash. Time stopped. And then there was silence, and darkness.

After a few moments, the alarms started to go off. Every battery backup / surge protector in the house wailed in protest. Our home alarm system began a scratchy sickly noise that it wasn't designed to make. A child's toy that had been laying inert for days on the floor beside my feet started flashing insistently. The lights flickered once, and then somehow came back on. A siren started in the distance. As I regained my senses, I stumbled into the living room; thankfully no one was injured. I rushed upstairs and was hit by the smell of acrid smoke. Fearing the worst I vaulted into the attic. Surely such a sound must have left its mark--a fierce blaze, a gaping smoldering hole, something. I tried to remember where I had put the fire extinguisher, but as I frantically looked around I found... nothing.

A tree, I thought, it must have struck a tree, and I remembered the time when I was a child and lightning struck a tree in my front yard. Somehow that tree survived, though it was forever scarred by the ordeal. I ran downstairs and outside into the pouring rain, expecting to see a smoking stump where one of our once proud pines had stood. There wasn't one. I circled the house. No fire, no smoke, not even a scorch mark. In some perverse way I felt cheated. The rain continued to fall, and another crack of lightning (1 Mississippi, 2) reminded me that maybe standing outside in a thunderstorm wasn't the brightest idea. So I went back in.

The bitter smell was coming from our alarm system, which was still making that unearthly noise. I unplugged it, and it began to wind down, like HAL in 2001 (Daisy, Daisy, ...). Had we somehow escaped unharmed? The people, the house, and the trees... yes. It could have been much worse, I repeated to myself over and over, thankful everyone was OK. But we weren't completely unscathed. You see, we had lost our technology.

To be continued... (part 2 now available)

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