FRANCONIA, Va. (AP) — A day after seeking refuge at shopping malls and movie theaters, hoping the lights would be back on when they returned, 3 million residents faced a grim reality Sunday: stifling homes, spoiled food and a looming commute filled with knocked-out stoplights.
Two days after storms tore across the eastern U.S., power outages were forcing people to get creative to stay cool in dangerously hot weather. Temperatures were forecast to top 100 degrees in many storm-stricken areas, and utility officials said the power will likely be out for several more days.
“If we don’t get power tonight, we’ll have to throw everything away,” Susan Fritz, a mother of three, said grimly of her refrigerator and freezer. Fritz came to a library in Bethesda so her son could do school work. She charged her phone and iPad at her local gym.
The storm was blamed for 13 deaths, most from trees falling on homes and cars.
The bulk of the damage was in West Virginia, Washington and the capital’s Virginia and Maryland suburbs. At least six of the dead were killed in Virginia, including a 90-year-old woman asleep in her bed when a tree slammed into her home. Two young cousins in New Jersey were killed when a tree fell on their tent while camping. Two were killed in Maryland, one in Ohio, one in Kentucky and one in Washington.
From Atlanta to Richmond, temperatures were expected to reach triple digits. With no air conditioning, officials urged residents to check on their elderly relatives and neighbors. It was tough to find a free pump at gas stations that did have power, and lines of cars snaked around fast-food drive-thrus.
States worked to make sure the power stayed on at water treatment plants so that people at least had clean water. Chain-saws buzzed throughout neighborhoods as utility crews scrambled to untangle downed trees and power lines. Neighbors banded together.
“Food, ice — we’re all sharing,” said 51-year-old Elizabeth Knight, who lives in the blue-collar Richmond suburb of Lakeside.
The Friday evening storms, a meteorological phenomenon known as a derecho, moved quickly across the region with little warning. The straight-line winds were just as destructive as any hurricane — but when a tropical system strikes, officials usually have several days to get extra personnel in place. Not so this time.
“Unlike a polite hurricane that gives you three days of warning, this storm gave us all the impact of a hurricane without any of the warning,” Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley said Sunday on CNN’s “State of the Union.”
Power crews from as far away as Florida and Oklahoma were on their way to the mid-Atlantic region to help get the power back on and the air conditioners running again. Even if people have generators, the gas-run devices often don’t have enough power to operate an air conditioner.
And power restoration was spotty: Several people interviewed by The Associated Press said they remained without power even though the lights were on at neighbors’ homes across the street.
National Guard troops were brought in to help in New Jersey and West Virginia. Crews had for the most part cleared debris from major roadways, and signals were working in many major intersections. But officials still had much work to do on secondary roads.
Sixty-year-old John Swift was content to rough it, at least for now. The Lakeside resident has a camping stove for cooking, doesn’t mind cold showers and doesn’t watch TV even when the power is working. He can charge his phone in his car, he said.
“It’s hot, that’s the biggest nuisance, the biggest concern,” he said.
Forecasters warned the high temperatures put people at risk for heat exhaustion and heat stroke. The National Weather Service told people to drink plenty of fluids, and to stay in air-conditioned rooms away from direct sunlight. Some cities gave residents free admission to swimming pools.
The weather service said yet another round of thunderstorms was possible late Sunday and early Monday, threatening strong winds and hail.
Fire rescue authorities also warned people to be careful when using candles and generators to help light darkened homes. Officials already had gotten calls in Maryland about people sickened by carbon monoxide fumes from generators.
In Waldorf, Charles County emergency officials handed out free 40-pound bags of ice to anyone who needed them. Among the takers was Ann Brown, 47, of Accokeek, Md., who had stayed in a hotel Saturday night because her house was without power.
She went to a cookout in Upper Marlboro on Saturday after family members decided to cook all the food in the freezer rather than let it go bad.
“Whatever they had, that’s what we ate, and it was great,” Brown said.
Whether she makes the commute to work on Monday will depend entirely on how comfortable the office is.
“If they don’t have power, I’m not going. But if they have power, yeah, I’m going in, to be in the air conditioning all day,” she said.
A pirate-themed splash park at a recreation center in Franconia was near capacity before noon Sunday. Alan Gorowitz, 44, a civilian Pentagon employee from Springfield, brought his 5-year-old son and 2-year-old daughter. Aside from spoiled food, he said the family wasn’t suffering.
“If she wants m-i-l-k, there’s nothing I can do,” Gorowitz said, gesturing at his daughter as she munched on pretzels. He said the family hadn’t done extensive disaster preparation.
“We keep batteries, water, flashlights,” Gorowitz said. “My friend across the street has the generator going today, the emergency food stocks and lots of guns. We’re not quite there. I don’t think we’re close to having looters.”
(Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)