Taken by Storms

O ver the course of a hot summer day in the suburbs, the thunderheads stack, their bottoms blue like an angry sea, their tops gray as smoke. While the sun still shines, the first peal of thunder is met with the hurried sounds of tasks to be completed—of a lawn mower, a saw—alongside sounds of ease—of wind chimes, a car radio.

Sometimes we can feel a storm coming as the air cools and lifts the leaves, agitating them like bubbles in a pot of water heading to a boil. Sometimes it arrives with barely a warning. This summer’s storms have been like that: some anticipated, some a surprise.

One day, a storm skirts east, another west, and then an odd stillness falls like a veil. The sun disappears, and the light flattens. The rain never comes.

Another day, just around sunset as the neighborhood quiets, raindrops begin to patter on the leaves, and low clouds spin in from the west. The storm arrives like a train, pushing a cool breeze that, strangely, hints of winter. Afterward, water drips luxuriously from the leaves and sparkles in the security light from a neighbor’s garage.

Another storm comes suddenly, shooting rain down with a forceful shush like a parent quieting a child. The wind shifts, and water blows sideways through screen doors. Thunder rolls around the storm’s edges, as if it can’t quite find its way in. Lightning is a blink, more a suggestion than a thing actually seen. Raindrops hit flat surfaces and explode into water dandelions. Gutters overflow. A river washes along the sidewalk curbs.

One afternoon, lightning comes first: a flash in a dome of milk glass, like an overhead light suddenly switched on and off before thunder rips across it, filling the dome with sound so pure it’s felt more than heard.

If we’re smart, we give those roiling black clouds and flashes of light the respect they deserve. We get off the ball field and out of the water. We watch from our windows or inside our cars.

Newspaper records reaching back to the 18th century recount lightning strikes that killed cows and burned barns. Accounts of people struck were printed from as far away as England and appeared under such provocative headlines as “A Record of Violent Deaths” and “The Hard Ways of the World.” A July 21, 1879, item in the New Haven Gazette claimed, “The house of Jonas Buckingham in Milford was struck by lightning Thursday, and Mrs. Buckingham, who has been deranged for several years, was completely restored to reason by the shock.”

One especially dramatic New Haven account was published in the Gazette later that year:

A short but severe thunder shower occurred here last evening, beginning about eleven o’clock. A sharp flash of lightning followed by a loud thunder crash woke many people up. The family of S. L. Pewtress, who lives at the corner of Lewis and Pine streets, thought their house had been lifted up 100 feet in the air. The crash was terrific and their chambers were filled with sulpherous [sic] smoke immediately afterwards. Mr. Pewtress was awakened with some difficulty, being probably somewhat effected by the lightning. The ell part of the house where it joins the main building had been struck. The tin roof of the ell was torn off; a piece of the tin was cut off as neatly as with a pair of shears, and transported into another man’s door yard. The lightning followed down the petition [sic] that separates the back parlor and the sitting room until it came to a speaking tube. It appeared to take a fancy to the tube and twisted it into all sorts of fancy shapes. Then Mr. Pewtress got up believing that the house was on fire and looked around to learn the amount of damage. He put his hand on the tube; it was still burning hot. It was wonderful that the house did not take fire. Leaving the tube the electricity found the way to the water pipe. This it followed into the street, where it went right and left exploding the water mains and tearing up the street. Had the bolt exploded in the room everything must have been blown to pieces…

Our fascination with such accounts lives on. A man and a woman both collapsed after a lightning strike to a nearby tree in West Haven in 2016, the New Haven Register reported; a surveillance video was posted online to show the dramatic moment. Both survived. A 2010 strike was blamed for a house fire in Hamden from which everyone, including the family dog and snake, escaped unharmed.

As these events go, Connecticut is a quieter state. According to data from the National Climatic Data Center, we get between 10 and 20 thunderstorms per year on average; areas along the Gulf Coast may report 130 or more. Nevertheless, those capricious orange and red blobs marching across the daily radar this time of year remain fearsome at their worst.

At their best—from a safe, dry place—they can be beautiful, too, with their painted clouds, their primeval illuminations, their quenching rain on a hot, dry garden.

Written and photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel.

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About Kathy Leonard Czepiel

View all posts by Kathy Leonard Czepiel
Kathy Leonard Czepiel is Daily Nutmeg's associate editor. She's also a fiction writer, writing teacher and book club troubleshooter. Her perfect New Haven day would involve lots of sunshine, a West Rock hike, a concert on the green and a coffee milkshake.

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