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An uneasy neighbor in land of lightning

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By MARY JO MELONE, Times Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published August 25, 2002

I pulled into the driveway at the tail end of a furious thunderstorm, one of those dinnertime deluges when dirty gray clouds, fat with rain and crackling with electricity, let loose.

I dashed to the porch, unlocked the front door. The burglar alarm was sickly beeping. I checked the kitchen phone for messages. The alarm company had called. I was alone. My thoughts went to burglars in the house.

I went into the living room, turned on the TV. The screen was a field of snow.

I wanted to call somebody, but the bedroom phone was dead.

Then came a pounding on my door. It was my next-door neighbor, breathless and wanting to see if I was okay. Two of his phones were gone. So was part of his computer. He'd heard the terrible crack, saw the flash. He was afraid his house might catch fire.

Not until the next morning did we find ground zero, a 40-foot palm tree growing alongside the sidewalk, across the street.

Lightning had shredded its bark from top to bottom.

The palm had been the perfect target. Lightning loves objects that are tall and isolated, I later learned from Arlene Laing, who teachers meteorology at the University of South Florida.

This tree, taller than anything on the block, all but had a bullseye painted on it. Laing explained that what looked to me like the damage of one bolt of lightning was the work of several. They had come to earth at once or broken off in separate forks.

"Each stroke," she said, "has its own current or voltage, its own strength.

"A lightning bolt heats up much more than the surface of the sun, so we're grateful they don't last long."

Yes, gratitude is the word for it. I might have come home to a stack of burnt sticks.

But I was still stuck on one point. Did the damage to my belongings really mean lightning had entered my house?

"Yes," said Laing, all scientific cool.

This is why, she advised, you should stay off the phone and out of the bathtub during a storm. One bolt can travel as far as 60 feet along the ground and go anywhere it pleases, taking the easiest path possible.

I have lived in Florida nearly 20 years and should be acclimated by now to these explosions of weather.

On the surface, I am. I proudly tell visitors that we are the lightning capital of the country and watch with delight when they say, "Oh, really?" with an anxious trace in their voice.

But when I try to wow the out-of-towners, I'm faking it a little.

I'm transfixed by the randomness of the summertime storms. I almost look forward to them. I know what will happen and yet I don't. Predictability is not in their nature. And the idea that lightning can enter your house faster than the perps in a home invasion has me, well, unnerved.

The lightning danced between my house, my next door neighbor's house, the house across the street. It penetrated our homes through the easiest of means, electrical and phone lines.

My neighbors and I have since made the necessary trips, to the requisite stores, to replace what we lost. I consider the money we forked over our tithe to the Florida weather gods, a kind of insurance on behalf of the sweet belief that lightning never strikes twice.

There's only one problem. Another palm tree, not quite so tall as the one struck last week, is uncomfortably close to my house.

-- You can reach Mary Jo Melone at or (813) 226-3402.

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