Mid-Atlantic power outages could last days

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 approached 100 degrees in many storm-stricken areas, and utility officials said the power will likely be out for several more days.

On Sunday night, federal and state officials in the mid-Atlantic region gave many workers the option of staying home Monday to ease congestion on the roads. Federal agencies will be open in Washington, but non-emergency employees have the option of taking leave or working from home. Maryland’s governor also gave state workers wide leeway for staying out of the office.

The storm was blamed for 14 deaths, most from trees falling on homes and cars. Meanwhile, Coast Guard officials say they have suspended the search for a man who went missing early Saturday while boating during the storm off Maryland.

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 Baltimore, temperatures approached or exceeded triple digits. Atlanta set a record with a high of 105 degrees, while the temperature hit 99 at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport just outside the nation’s capital. 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. In Maryland, Gov. O’Malley promised that he would push utility companies to get electricity restored as quickly as possible.

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.

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