Thunder in the Air

Lightning – PhotoXpress-Peter Baxter

For the past week we have been sweltering in a heat wave. Temperatures have topped 40°C (104°F) at times. We have taken refuge in the swimming pool, which has come into its own at last this year. With these elevated temperatures you normally expect thunder storms to ensue but this hasn’t happened – yet. When they do come they can be very violent here, as we have previously found to our cost…

Blogging colleague Sue recently wrote a very good post about thunder storms, including what causes them and precautions to take beforehand and during. I shan’t repeat what she says but will simply recount a few of our own experiences.

Just as no one tells you how cold it can be here in winter, nothing prepares you for the violence of some of the thunder storms. In the UK, it would never have occurred to me to unplug electronic equipment during a storm. Here, it’s indispensable. Otherwise you risk computers, telephones, TV, video (if anyone still has one) and hi-fi being grilled by the power surge through the cables. If we think there is even a remote possibility of thunder, we unplug everything before going out.

In 1999, violent thunder storms arrived every evening for a week at the beginning of August. One was so powerful that, even after the mains trip switch had shut down, some of our light bulbs shattered. Our neighbour who owned the maison sécondaire nearby arrived a couple of weeks later and was astonished to find shards of glass all over the floor from the broken light bulbs.

Heavy rain, strong winds and hail often accompany these storms. Once, we measured 50mm of rain in 30 minutes. It came in everywhere – through the roof, under the kitchen door, even through the wall between the kitchen and the garage. You can’t do much except put buckets and towels down to catch the worst.

Three years ago I had to go to Paris for the day on business and took the plane from Toulouse. On my return, the sky was black and, as I drove out of the car park, the heavens opened. Alas, it wasn’t just rain but also chunks of ice about 8 centimetres across. I had to stop the car in the middle of the road and wait it out whilst impacts like rocks being thrown hit the car. It went on for five minutes but it seemed like five hours. When I got home I realised the car was pockmarked and the cover of one of the indicators was shattered.

The worst storm we have ever experienced occurred four weeks ago to the day. As we watched the Olympics opening ceremony we realised from the increasingly bright flashes that a storm was on the way. We dutifully shut everything down, unplugged all our electronic equipment as usual and went to bed. A few minutes later a simultaneous flash, bang and fizzing sound coincided with the electricity cutting. The storm was right overhead.

The next morning the extent of the damage gradually unfolded. The lightning had struck the transformer down the lane leaving part of it blackened. To EDF’s credit – and I’ve had reason to praise them in an emergency before – they came out within two hours and fixed it. Alas, that wasn’t all:

  • The boiler didn’t work. Our plumber came out that day (thank goodness for 15 years and a lot of work put his way) and found the electronics completely burnt out. Happily, he had the right part and fixed it.
  • One of our phones was kaput. This was our fault, since we had carelessly left one of the phone jacks plugged in.
  • Most annoying of all, our Internet connection was out. Since we can’t get broadband here we have a satellite dish and a variety of other kit. Two of those bits of kit were also burnt out and it took us nearly two weeks to get back to normal.

We also found later that the impact had blown the lid off a telephone junction box down the lane and blackened the telegraph pole too. Fortunately, our lines were unaffected.

Now, we not only unplug everything but also turn off the mains trip switch in the event of a storm. Although the trip switch should protect the electrical installations from power surges, the impact is sometimes so close and quick that it does the damage during the split second it takes the trip switch to cut off the current.

If you buy a house down here, it’s worth being aware of the considerable damage thunder can cause. I can’t do better than point you again to Sue’s excellent advice about living with thunder storms in southern France.

Copyright © 2012 Life on La Lune, all rights reserved

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About nessafrance

My husband and I moved to an 18th-century farmhouse in SW France in 1997. I am fascinated by French history, rural traditions and customs and enjoy seeking out the reality behind the myths. I run my own copywriting business and write short stories and the occasional novel in my spare time. My husband appears here as the SF, which stands for Statistics Freak, owing to his penchant for recording numbers about everything.
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10 Responses to Thunder in the Air

  1. Kaari Meng says:

    Hi Vanessa –
    My name is Kaari and I bring groups of women to your area of France every summer. I was wondering if I might ask you a couple of questions about the area and see if you might be able to point me in the right direction…Merci!

    Kaari

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  2. amelie88 says:

    Oh gosh, we get so many thunderstorms in NY in the summer! Thunderstorms on the East Coast of the US are a given any summer. With the humidity (something you do not seem to have to contend with as much in the south of France), the hot and cold air pressures clash a lot so we are no strangers to violent, scary thunderstorms. We typically lose power at least once a summer–our electric company has always been pretty good at restoring it though! We always know a storm is coming when the dog starts trembling and whining–he does not like thunderstorms at all.

    And we also get what we call cloudbursts (I do not know if you use this term in the UK?) that accompany the storms. My town has suffered flash floods because of the brook that runs straight through it–I remember the football (as in American football) field flooded my first week of school when I was 16. It looked like a lake!

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    • nessafrance says:

      Animals always seem to be very sensitive to changes in atmospheric pressure – and can also predict earthquakes. So I’m not surprised if your dog has problems when there’s a storm coming. Our weather is certainly less humid here than on the US east coast but, even so, we get some pretty violent storms. Flash floods are more common in the UK than they are here – depending on where you are, of course.

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  3. Sue Whatmough says:

    Thanks for the link and appreciation Vanessa. Wow! With good reason you go even further than us turning off the trip switch – we’ll do that in future. And the phone plugs too. You simply can’t be too careful. It’s so important to take storms seriously. We had friends to dinner the night one of the hailstorms hit and when they left they found their car covered in large dents. Luckily it was their little runabout. Anyone with a car they value would be advised to make sure it’s under cover.

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    • nessafrance says:

      Thanks also for the link on your blog, Sue. We are probably a little bit too belt and braces – and when we turn on the electricity again it means resetting electric clocks, the water softener, etc! Sorry to hear about your friends’ car. Our hangar/garage is always full of wood so we can’t put our main car under cover.

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  4. Our last house in Les Landes was a magnet for lightning strikes, probably attracted by the huge pine tree next to it. Both the dog and I were given shocks while we were in the house by strikes on separate occasions, fortunately more alarming than damaging, though poor Flynn wouldn’t go in his basket for days as he’d been peacefully asleep there when lightning hit the house, and a blue ball went through the wall and zapped him.
    We watched a fascinating programme years ago on people who have been struck by lightning in the States – one forest ranger has been hit about seven times – it said that there are about 10,000 reported lightning strikes a year and 100 deaths, which makes the death rate 1 in a 100, much lower than I’d have thought.

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  5. We’ve had a remarkably thunderstorm-free summer so far. They’ve been forecast for all this week but not materialised. Which is good and bad – we need the rain and I do enjoy a dramatic show of lightning, but as you say, the storms can be incredibly destructive. We generally lose electricity for a while and certainly the phone line. We’ve fried one modem in the past and are very, very careful to unplug everything and anything these days!

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    • nessafrance says:

      We had some drizzle today, which didn’t amount to much, but at least it’s cooler. The heat wave went on a bit long. We saw a lot of lightning flashes far in the distance on Thursday night but it never came here.

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