The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Lightning in D.C. area struck Washington Monument, injured National Guardsmen in Lafayette Square on Thursday night

Lightning strikes multiple locations in the District, including the Washington monument, as photographed from Arlington, Va. at 8:32 p.m. Thursday. Scene exposed for 30 seconds. (Anupam Anand) (Anupam Anand)
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Several rounds of intense thunderstorms charged through the D.C. area Thursday night into early Friday, unleashing frequent lightning that injured two National Guardsmen and struck the Washington Monument.

The guardsmen were struck just after midnight within the Lafayette Square perimeter near the intersection of 17th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue. They were taken to a hospital with injuries that were not believed to be life-threatening.

“Both were conscious and alert with no visible signs of burns,” said Doug Buchanan, chief communications officer for the D.C. fire department. “It was clearly an indirect strike, presumably to a tree that was nearby.”

The guardsman were providing security for “Justice For George Floyd” protests.

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Storms first swept through the Washington region between 7 and 9 p.m., gaining strength as they traversed the Interstate 66 corridor. The National Weather Service issued numerous severe thunderstorm warnings as the storms developed.

The storms reached the District just before 8 p.m. While many sought shelter, some protesters in Lafayette Square endured the storms, chanting “We are not leaving” in the midst of the deluge and crackling thunder, tweeted The Washington Post’s Samantha Schmidt.

The storm’s frequent lightning hit the tip of the Washington Monument, which was captured in viral footage from TV station WUSA9, viewed more than 8 million times:

The lightning in the footage was sensed by a national lightning detection network operated by Vaisala, a Finland-based company.

“We were able to detect multiple cloud-to-ground strikes within about a kilometer of the monument, including the two that actually appeared to hit the monument,” said Chris Vagasky, a meteorologist for the company.

The monument, being the tallest structure in the District, is routinely struck by lightning.

“The Washington Monument gets struck multiple times every year,” wrote Capital Weather Gang photographer Kevin Ambrose in an email. “But it’s not a common occurrence with every thunderstorm. In the dozens of thunderstorms I’ve photographed in D.C. over the past 15 years, I’ve only witnessed a direct strike one time. There are many near misses, which I find particularly fascinating because it shows lightning doesn’t always strike the tallest object.”

Around the time storms were passing through the District, lightning struck a home in North Potomac, igniting a fire and causing “severe damage,” according to the National Weather Service. Another lightning-induced house fire displaced two people in Clifton, according to the Fairfax County News Wire.

Temperatures earlier in the afternoon had swelled past 90 degrees, helping to fuel the evening storms. “It was a very unstable air mass,” said Jeff Halverson, Capital Weather Gang’s expert on severe weather. “There was a lot of buoyant energy in the middle levels of the atmosphere that helped to generate the lightning.”

The storms also contained pockets of damaging winds, which brought down trees in Fairfax County, Arlington County and the District. The D.C. fire department tweeted that it responded to several calls for wires and trees down because of the storm.

After the initial round of storms, additional cloud bursts continued past midnight, when the guardsmen were injured. The Weather Service issued a flash flood watch for much of the region and then a flood warning between Manassas and the District, as repeated storms unloaded 1 to 3 inches of rain. Dulles Airport picked up 1.47 inches.

The swath of heavy rain extended northeast toward Annapolis and Baltimore. BWI Marshall Airport set a rainfall record for the date Thursday, with 2.18 inches falling, topping the previous record of 1.26 inches from 1891 (set in downtown Baltimore).

In Maryland, US-1 was closed in both directions in College Park because of high water just after 1 a.m. Friday, while in Virginia, Difficult Run at Wolf Trap reached minor flood stage early Friday morning.

Storms with lightning and heavy rain predicted Friday afternoon and evening

As the rain from Thursday night and early Friday morning soaked the soil in many areas, the Weather Service has issued a flash flood watch for much of the region on Friday from noon through the evening as additional heavy showers and storms are predicted. “Some areas could receive an additional 1 to 3 inches of rain, which could result in flash flooding,” the watch states.

D.C.-area forecast: Afternoon storms a risk yet again, and flirting with 90 through Saturday

The storms Friday are also likely to produce more lightning. According to the Weather Service, lightning strikes in the United States about 25 million times a year and kills 20 or more people and injures hundreds. In 2020, two lightning deaths have been reported so far.

If thunder is audible, it means lightning is present. “When thunder roars, go indoors,” the Weather Service cautions. Even after a storm departs, lightning can still strike for some time after. It is safest to stay sheltered until 30 minutes after you hear the last rumble of thunder.

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Below, find more photos of the lightning from Thursday night’s storms.

Clarence Williams contributed to reporting.