ACs out from 'derecho' storm, Washington preps for swelter

A powerful line of thunderstorms knocked out power to nearly 2 million homes – and perhaps as many air conditioners – in the middle of a historic June heat wave across the Eastern Seaboard.

Jonathan Ernst/Reuters
People survey storm damage in the Capitol Hill neighborhood in Washington Saturday. Wind gusts clocked at speeds of up to 79 mph were reported in and around the U.S. capital, knocking out power to hundreds of thousands of homes in the area.

Authorities in Washington, D.C., urged residents on Saturday to look out for each other, and especially the elderly, after a deadly thunderstorm system knocked out power – and therefore air conditioning – to 1.2 million capital region homes already broiling in a historic June heat wave.

The East Coast continued to sear on Saturday, as temperatures began inching once again into the low 100s from Atlanta to New York. But the crash of a rare storm system featuring hurricane-force winds into the Washington, D.C. area caused one electric company spokesman to make comparisons to the aftermath of hurricane Isabel in 2003, where 1.2 million suburban Washingtonians went without power for days.

“Devastating,” is what PepCo’s Clay Anderson called Friday’s storm and its looming aftermath, including what officials are calling a “multi-day” outage.

The hot June weather has already broken thousands of records across the US.

On Friday, a stifling blanket of humidity and asphalt-softening heat covering the Mississippi Valley, the South, and the mid-Atlantic helped spark in the D.C. area a thunderstorm species more regularly seen in the Midwest. It’s called a “derecho” storm, which can combine heavy, intense lightning and rain with hurricane-force winds. Five people, including two boys camping in a tent, died due to falling trees.

“Whipped by the wind, rain fell sideways in Georgetown,” the Washington Post reported. “An opera was halted in the middle of Act II at the Wolf Trap.”

On Saturday, the heat, though slightly tempered by the storm, is still expected to rise into the 100s, a situation millions of Washingtonians – bureaucrats and lobbyists among them – accustomed to air conditioning now have to face without the relief of chilled sanctuaries.

“With more than 1.5 million Maryland and Virginia homes and businesses losing power in last night’s severe weather, the one thing we don’t want is another super hot day filled with a significant storm threat,” Washington Post meteorologist Ian Livingston wrote Saturday. “Unfortunately, we’ve got it.”

Emergency rooms in northern Virginia and Maryland braced for a spike in heat-related complaints. While heat wave-related deaths have been trending down in the US, that’s most likely the result of growing access to air conditioning, which is now suddenly lacking for millions of people in northern Virginia and Maryland.

Concerns about the heat dominated the official agenda across the East Coast on Saturday.

In Montgomery County, Maryland, and other storm-struck parts of the mid-Atlantic and D.C. areas, officials scrambled on Saturday to open schools as cooling centers to give overheated residents a reprieve.

Expecting 110 degrees on Saturday, Atlanta, facing a rare “Code Purple” air quality emergency, also opened cooling centers for the heat-struck. In Decatur, Ga., the Salvation Army is quickly running out of a donated batch of 2,000 fans.

In Memphis, Tenn., Mayor A.C. Wharton, Jr. pleaded, "Please, if you know of someone who doesn't have air conditioning or who might be struggling with the heat, just stop by and see how they are doing.”

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