Two strikes, but St Mary not out
12 Apr 2018
In late 1864, lightning struck St Mary’s of the Assumption Church in Warwick, Queensland, and was reported at the time to be ‘much injured’. The modest stone building cost 1500 pounds sterling, and opened in August 1865 for the Feast of the Assumption.
Early in 2017, a thunderous crack pierced the sky, and a bolt struck St Mary’s a second time.
Father Franco Filipetto recalls the event that started a fire in the ceiling and side aisle seating.
“I remember it was a public holiday, early in 2017. Some people saw us from across the road at a café and reported it. The fire brigade attended quickly so it wasn’t about to spread.”
Assessing ceiling damage
The lightning caused extensive damage to the church ceiling, but the extent of other havoc wasn’t obvious at first.
“Considering the building the damage could have been worse. It was about two or three square metres and the church was scorched inside. The galvanised iron was buckled because of the heat, the batons and beams were damaged, and some were burnt through. It was difficult to know the damage to the ceiling at the time, looking up you wouldn’t have noticed it but the fire was caught between the galvanised iron and the ceiling boards.”
Inevitable secondary damage
Then came the damage from trying to contain and extinguish the fire.
“There was some water damage and that was a big job to clean up, the carpet, soot and smoke. We needed a big fan to get rid of the smoke smell. We had to clean up the pews. We had a general mass the following day that was scheduled, so that was moved, but we were in business the following week.”
Business disruption near-miss
St. Mary’s in Warwick had survived more than a century and a half and was still standing, but remained vulnerable to the risk of interruption, despite insurance protection.
“We had no business continuity plan. If the fire was worse we would have had to relocate.”
There was a need to improvise in the aftermath of the lightning strike, and to ensure that the parish could still offer mass.
“We had to adjust. We needed to go back to our old style of reading hymns from sheets, because our TVs were blown up.”
Ongoing concerns and annoyances
In the months following the lightning strike, electrical irregularities surfaced.
“We thought our microphone system was okay but it started playing up, so we had audio and visual damage”.
Being prepared for lighting strikes
Church property owners and occupiers have a duty of care when it comes to the loss of heritage property assets, or potentially the loss of life, as well as an obligation to meet the conditions of their insurance policy.
Expertise and advice from detailed inspections, and a precise list of recommendations, can prove invaluable.
Father Filipetto used information from CCI’s assessors, and now has plans for repairs that ensure a safe and resilient building.
“We need to check all the electrics this year, and the lightning rods. We don’t understand why we were hit, but were told it was a big lightning strike."
Lightning strikes are random, but managing the risk isn’t
Buildings need maintenance, and roofs are especially prone to wear and tear, including lightning protection systems that have been installed.
A building’s capacity to cope with extreme weather and lightning is largely dependent on the condition of its roof, its lightning rods, and the conducting system that channels the huge discharge of electricity into the ground.
Just as a roof needs to be checked regularly and seasonally for: leaks, rust, missing or cracked tiles, pooling water, improperly installed flashing, blocked gutters or surface erosion, the lightning protection systems also need a regular check. A lightning bolt carries around 5 billion joules of energy, or around 5 gigajoules. So this is a vast energy surge, concentrated in a very short period of time. It’s the kind of energy discharge that is going to very quickly find its way out of any gaps or weaknesses in your conducting systems.
It would be unlucky for any church to be struck by lightning multiple times, and failing to maintain your property can present serious risks to the physical asset, and lead to business disruption. At worst, neglecting regular maintenance could place lives in danger.
Dedicated maintenance checks will go a long way to safeguarding your Parish against the risk of your insurance claim not being paid. Proper attention to building care will preserve both the physical asset and guard the community’s home for worship and connectivity.
Lightening Strikes, Australia Wide First Aid
Thunderstorm hits Sydney with over 4600 lightning strikes, The Australian, 9 January 2018
Man dies after being struck by lightning in Northern Territory, TenPlay, 3 January 2018
How to be safe in a lightning storm, ABC News, 30 November 2017
Flash Facts about Lightening, National Geographic News, 24 June 2005
Places of worship, week 1: churches, The Guardian