Lightning Victim Strikes Back

By Terry Sheridan, FLASH Consumer Blogger

Bill Prince knew his Chicago-area home was hit by lightning even before he saw the burned portion of his cedar shake roof.

“It’s a very loud explosion and you know immediately when it hits because the concussion from the heating of the air shakes everything,” he says.

Prince grabbed a fire extinguisher and headed to the attic, the smell of burned wood growing stronger. He called 911, and soon thereafter firemen using a thermal camera examined the roof and structural supports for any sign of fire, hidden embers, or hot spots.

They didn’t find anything, but the lightning had hit a corner of the roof causing $20,000 in damage where the main roof support joist exploded.

That happened in 2010, and after several years of exploring lightning protection systems, Prince opted to use air terminals–lightning rods connected by copper cable that run from the home’s  corners down to the ground.  The cable is buried approximately 10 feet underground.  Once installed, the highly conductive copper and aluminum materials provide a low resistance path to safely bring lightning’s dangerous electricity down to the ground.  The goal of grounding a house is to take lightning’s electrical charge and shuttle it into the dirt.  Prince’s professional installation was completed in April.  Typical grounding costs between $1,500 and $4,200, depending on the size of the home.

If you’re thinking your home is already is grounded, you’re only partly correct.  A home’s electrical conduit in the walls and attic is grounded, but it’s not enough to withstand a jolt of lightning that can pack heat of more than 50,000 degrees Fahrenheit.  Prince’s protection system adds grounding to his home’s piping and water system.  And both circuit breaker boxes have surge protectors.

Are these protective rods and cable unsightly?  No.  In fact, they’re quite unobtrusive and come in a variety of finishes and styles.  On Prince’s house, the 12- to 18-inch terminals are no bigger than the diameter of a ballpoint pen and their copper color will oxidize and eventually turn to brown and match the color of his wood roof.  The copper cable is tucked along the home’s downspouts and will turn to brown as well.  When a lightning protection network is in place, a lightning strike is intercepted and directed to the ground without impact to the people, contents or structure.

From June 22 to 28, Lightning Safety Awareness Week will bring national attention to lightning safety and property protection.  Learn more by visiting and and remember, When Thunder Roars, Go Indoors!

Editor’s Note: Terry Sheridan is an award-winning journalist who has more than 30 years of experience in reporting and editing for newspapers in the Chicago and Miami areas. She covered the aftermath of Hurricane Andrew’s devastation in 1992 in South Florida, and has experienced damage to her own homes from two hurricanes. She now lives in New Hampshire.

Make wildfire protection your burning desire

By: Terry Sheridan, FLASH Consumer Blogger

Jeff Shapiro admits he should have known better about wildfire precautions. He is, after all, a fire protection engineer. Shapiro got his wakeup call in 2011.

The catastrophic Bastrop County wildfire of Labor Day weekend in 2011 burned 32,400 acres and destroyed almost 2,900 buildings – most of them homes – southeast of Austin in central Texas. It’s described as the most destructive wild land urban interface wildfire in Texas history.

During the same weekend, wildfire destroyed 23 homes in the Steiner Ranch community on the northwest side of Austin. Shapiro lives just five miles away in Jester Estates.

Before Bastrop, it had been decades since the last wildfire in the canyon behind his house, Shapiro says. “When I purchased my lot in 2000, everything was wet and green,” he adds. No one in his neighborhood really thought about wildfires, including him.

But the hot, dry climate change and Jester’s position atop a plateau surrounded by fire-friendly wild land raises the community’s burn potential. So Shapiro got to work.

He installed a fire sprinkler system in a home already constructed of fire-resistant concrete board and stone, and Class A fire-retardant asphalt shingles on the roof; trimmed low-hanging branches on trees to make “fuel breaks” that slow a fire’s upward climb; and created open spaces between pockets of trees instead of having continuous vegetation that would feed a fire.

But wildfire protection requires community action to be most effective. Though Jester Estates is now a “Firewise Community,” a designation by the National Fire Protection Association, not all homeowners have embraced the effort.

“People are apathetic if there hasn’t been a fire recently and, if there has been, there’s a denial factor,” says Shapiro, chairman of Jester’s Firewise Community safety committee. “There seems to be an expectation that the fire service will save you.” But depending on the number of fires and fire-fighting resources, that protection may not arrive, he adds.

From a firefighter’s perspective, Justice Jones says homeowners who followed recommendations to protect their homes during the Bastrop fire had a greater ability to survive the fire without firefighters’ help.

“That’s not to say that firefighters won’t make every effort to defend homes. But applying these tactics improves the chances of protecting  the structure,” says Jones, Fire Adapted Communities coordinator for the Austin Fire Department’s Wildfire Division.

In addition to Shapiro’s precautions, Jones offers these tips to protect your home.

  • Embers are the biggest danger.  Install ember-resistant roof and foundation vents or 1/8-inch metal mesh behind the openings. Check local building codes first.
  • Remove leaves, pine needles and other combustible material from gutters.
  • Create a barrier surrounding the house, and decks and porches, that’s free of mulch and other combustible material.
  • Protect your home with non-combustible roofing and siding material.

Find more information about wildfire protection here :

Editor’s Note: Celebrate National Wildfire Community Preparedness Day on Saturday, May 3, a national effort to reduce wildfire risk through volunteer cleanup and clear-out projects. Terry Sheridan is an award-winning journalist who has more than 30 years of experience in reporting and editing for newspapers in the Chicago and Miami areas. She covered the aftermath of Hurricane Andrew’s devastation in 1992 in South Florida, and has experienced damage to her own homes from two hurricanes. She now lives in New Hampshire.

10 Tornado Safety Tips to Keep You Safe Before, During and After a Storm

With the tornadoes this weekend, today and possible tornadoes over the next few days, the nonprofit Federal Alliance for Safe Homes (FLASH) offers the following 10 tornado safety tips for residents in the affected areas.


1. Create a family tornado plan and know where you can take shelter.

2. Closely monitor a NOAA Weather Radio or download the FLASH Weather Alerts app on your iOS or Android device.


3. Take refuge in a tested and approved storm shelter, safe room or a community storm shelter labeled as an official tornado shelter. Community storm shelters may be found by contacting your local Office of Emergency Management for the closest community storm shelter. If available, community storm shelters are commonly located in community buildings, such as schools, libraries, churches or even airports.

4. If no shelter is available:

  • Are you indoors? Go to the lowest floor, to a small, center interior room, under a stairwell or to an interior hallway with no windows.Crouch down as low as possible to the floor, face down and cover your head with your arms. Cover yourself with a blanket, mattress, helmet or other thick covering. Wear footwear with thick soles to your safe location.
  • Are you in a mobile home? Get out. Even if your home is tied down, it is not as safe as a sturdy building. Go to a nearby permanent structure.
  • Are you in a vehicle? Do not attempt to drive away from a tornado.  Go to a nearby permanent structure. Do not shelter under an overpass, bridge or in a drainage ditch. If you cannot safely exit your vehicle, park it out of traffic lanes. Stay in the vehicle with your seatbelt on. Put your head below the windows and protect it with your arms and a blanket, coat or other cushion.
  • Are you outdoors? Shelter in a sturdy building. If no shelter is available, lie face down on low ground, protecting the back of your head with your arms.


5. Keep your family together in a safe location and wait for emergency personnel to arrive.

6. Stay away from power lines, downed trees and puddles that could hide live wires.

7. Watch your step to avoid sharp objects.

8. Stay out of heavily damaged structures, as they may collapse.

9. Do not use matches or lighters in case of leaking natural gas or fuel tanks.

10. Listen to your radio for information and instructions.

Installing a safe room or storm shelter built to FEMA P-361 guidelines or the ICC/NSSA 500 standard can make a life or death difference.  A site-built safe room can also be constructed in accordance with the prescriptive designs found in FEMA P-320: Taking Shelter from the Storm: Building a Safe Room for Your Home or Small Business, which meets the FEMA P-361 guidelines and the ICC/NSSA 500 standard.

Lifesaving Mudslide Safety Tips from FLASH

The mudslide that impacted Snohomish County, WA this weekend has claimed at least 16 lives, destroyed homes, and countless others are still missing. With the potential threat of another mudslide affecting the area and spring showers around the corner, here are some lifesaving safety tips to protect your home and family from mudslides.

  1. Know your mudslide risk. Create a family disaster plan that includes a plan for evacuation and a 72-hour emergency kit.
  2. Heed evacuation warnings by officials. Know in advance who will give the official evacuation orders.
  3. The elderly, people with disabilities, those dependent on medical equipment or anyone else who would need help to evacuate should register with local officials in advance.
  4. Those with pets should identify pet-friendly options ahead of time.
  5. Mudflows are not covered by a standard home insurance; however they are covered by flood insurance. A mudflow is the movement of water and mud that flows across normally dry land.   A mudslide or landslide, which can result from a collapsed hillside, happens when earth and rock travel downhill. Only mudflows, not mudslides or landslides, are covered by flood insurance. Click here for more information from the National Flood Insurance Program.
  6. Be aware of any sudden increase or decrease in water flow and notice whether the water changes from clear to muddy. These changes may mean there is debris flow activity upstream so be prepared to move quickly.
  7. Stay alert when conditions are ripe for mudslides especially when driving. Watch the road for collapsed pavement, mud, and other indications of a possible debris flow.
  8. Listen for sounds that indicate moving debris, such as trees cracking.
  9. After the mudslide, stay away from the affected areas and watch for flooding that can happen after a mudslide event.

Floods Happen Anytime, Everywhere: Protect Your Home and Finances

By Terry Sheridan, FLASH Consumer Blogger

Just one inch of water in a 2,000-square-foot home can cause $21,000 in damage.

That startling fact, courtesy of the National Flood Insurance Program is something to keep in mind about the trauma of flood damage and loss in Boulder, Colo. Many residents there had much more than an inch of water. One anonymous posting on the city’s flood website reported that 7.5 feet of water poured into the finished basement. Everything was lost, the resident said.

Of course, not everyone had 90 inches of water lapping at the basement walls. A homeowner might have had an inch of water while a neighbor had several feet. Some with crawl spaces had little or no water while others with crawl spaces are still pumping out. Others saw water leak in from the roof, too.

It’s seems like a head-scratcher but there’s some logic to it. The position of homes, how and where storm drains back up, positioning and diameter of gutters and downspouts, types of foundation waterproofing, and whether there are flood vents in basements and crawl spaces are just some factors that affect a flood’s impact.

Neighbors Michael Leccese and John Pollak learned firsthand about the vagaries of nature’s impact.

Leccese’s home has a crawl space about three feet below the ground floor. A tiny furnace room sits deeper at what would be basement level. The crawl space remained dry but about an inch of water seeped into the furnace room, which took Leccese an hour to remove with a wet vacuum.

Pollak had only a small amount of water in his crawl space. But the basement of his rental triplex took in more than two feet of diluted sewage. He gutted the basement, removing drywall, carpeting and anything else 2.5 feet above the floor. When the doors kept leaking, he realized that their hollow cores acted like straws that couldn’t contain all of the water they had absorbed. So the doors were removed, too.

Here’s what Leccese and Pollak would like you to know from their experience:

  • Install concrete flooring in the basement instead of wall-to-wall carpeting.
  • Inspect the roof regularly.
  • Get a sump pump. If you’ve already got one, service it and check it during storms or flood alerts.
  • Consider flood insurance. Don’t assume you’re OK because flood maps say you’re not in the flood zone. Some flooding was the result of rising water tables, rivers and creeks that found new courses, debris that created dams, overflowing irrigation ditches, mudslides and drain overflows.
  • Check the waterproofing of your home’s foundation.
  • Install larger diameter downspouts and gutters, and extend the downspouts farther away from the house.
  • Know what your homeowners insurance covers. Will damage from backed-up drains be covered or will your insurer refuse because it’s a flood?
  • Consider installing drywall several inches above the floor and covering the gap with base trim. That way, the drywall won’t start slurping up the water until you’ve got several inches.

Learn more about flood protection at

Editor’s Note: Terry Sheridan is an award-winning journalist who has more than 30 years of experience in reporting and editing for newspapers in the Chicago and Miami areas. She covered the aftermath of Hurricane Andrew’s devastation in 1992 in South Florida, and has experienced damage to her own homes from two hurricanes. She now lives in New Hampshire.

Remembering the 9.0M Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami

It’s been three years since the 9.0M Tohoku earthquake and tsunami claimed more than 15,000 lives.  In fact, more than 260,000 people are still living in temporary housing.  In recognition of this historic catastrophe, here are our tsunami tips for residents along at-risk coastlines in the Pacific, Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico.

1. Listen to official emergency management or law enforcement instructions on radio and television stations. Monitor NOAA weather radio with a tone-alert feature. The tone-alert feature will warn you of potential danger even if you are not listening to local radio and television stations.

2. Be on guard for strong earthquakes. Earthquakes can trigger a tsunami. Do not stay in low-lying coastal areas after a strong earthquake has been felt. Tsunamis can impact every coastline in the Pacific, Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico.

3. When there is little time, consider vertical evacuation. The upper stories of tall, multi-storied, concrete buildings like hotels can provide refuge if there is no time to quickly move inland or to higher ground.

4. Never go down to the beach to watch for tsunamis. If you can see the wave you are too close to escape it – tsunamis move much faster than a person can run.

5. Remember a tsunami is a series of waves and the first wave may not be the largest wave. The danger can last for several hours after the arrival of the first wave.

6. Develop a family emergency plan. Have a family meeting place that is an elevated inland location. Ask a relative or friend outside your community to be the emergency contact.

7. If you are visiting an area at-risk for tsunamis, check with the hotel, motel or campground operator for tsunami evacuation information and how you would be warned. Know designated emergency escape routes before a warning is issued.

For more information on how to protect your home and family from earthquakes and tsunamis visit

When the twister comes, where will you be that’s safe?

By: Terry Sheridan, FLASH Consumer Blogger

Ricky Knox knew the EF-5 tornado was coming even before he saw it. Five minutes later, it hit his community near Huntsville, Ala.

“My son and I were talking and looking out the back door. I asked him to be quiet a minute and I could hear that thing – just like a train – coming,” he says.

Knox, his wife, son and mother climbed down into the tornado shelter that had been installed below the garage floor just three weeks before. Huddled down, knees bumped up to the next person’s feet, they waited.

“I knew we were in for it when my ears popped,” Knox says. “Not like when you’re on a plane but like snapping your fingers or breaking sticks next to your ears.” The family could hear the garage and house coming apart above them.

When they emerged 30 minutes later, their home was demolished and someone’s four-ton air-conditioner had blown into what had been the kitchen.

But the Knox family was unhurt and safe.

Knox offers these suggestions in considering a shelter:

  • Certified shelters and safe rooms can be built above- or below ground so if you have elderly family members or friends who may have difficulty entering a below-ground shelter, convert a bigger closet into a “safe room.”
  • Be sure you have rain ponchos because tornadoes often bring torrential downpours and you very likely won’t have a roof over your head when you leave the shelter.
  • Register with local emergency officials and alert neighbors so they know you’ll be in the shelter.
  • Take a cell phone with you but make sure you’ve got reception. Knox climbed down into his shelter, shut the overhead door and tested his phone. And it did work.
  • Have battery-powered lights and water in the shelter.
  • Do a practice run with your family.

Dr. Ernst Kiesling, an engineer and executive director of the National Storm Shelter Association (NSSA), cautions that many people don’t understand that storm shelters must meet more rigorous building standards than a home because of wind pressures and debris impact.

Shelters designed to NSSA standards can endure wind pressures six or seven times greater than a typical building, Kiesling says. Building codes generally require that a non-shelter building withstand 90 to 100 mph winds. Shelters are designed to take 250 mph winds – the worst-case scenario.

Above- and below-ground shelters vary in size, can be steel or concrete, and costs range from about $3,000 to $8,000. (Knox’s shelter cost $6,500.) Your contractor may need to obtain a building permit prior to installing the shelter.

Sound complicated? It is. That’s why you should consult with an engineer who understands shelter requirements, and a contractor who builds to NSSA standards.

Find more shelter information at and

Editor’s Note:  FLASH President & CEO Leslie Chapman-Henderson is speaking at the National Tornado Summit on Monday, February 10.  To learn more, visit Terry Sheridan is an award-winning journalist who has more than 30 years of experience in reporting and editing for newspapers in the Chicago and Miami areas. She covered the aftermath of Hurricane Andrew’s devastation in 1992 in South Florida, and has experienced damage to her own homes from two hurricanes. She now lives in New Hampshire.