WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Much of the eastern United States sweltered under oppressive heat for at least the third straight day on Sunday, after violent storms that took a dozen lives and knocked out power to more than 3 million customers.
Emergencies were declared in Washington D.C., Maryland, Ohio, Virginia and West Virginia on Saturday because of damage from overnight storms, which unleashed hurricane-force winds across and a 500-mile (800-km) stretch of the mid-Atlantic region.
President Barack Obama authorized the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to coordinate all disaster relief efforts in storm-ravaged Ohio.
The storms’ rampage came amid roasting temperatures that topped 100 Fahrenheit (38 Celsius) in several southern cities, including Atlanta, where the mercury hit 106 degrees (41 Celsius), according to Accuweather.com.
Saturday’s high marked the hottest day ever reported in Atlanta and local meteorologists said Sunday was only expected to be a few degrees cooler.
The blanket of steamy air hanging over the southern city prompted local environmental officials to declare a so-called “code purple” on Friday. That meant that air quality had reached “very unhealthy” levels, according to data from the Environmental Protection Agency.
Heat advisories remained in effect on Sunday across the southeast and lower half of the Mississippi Valley, with “triple-digit temperatures expected across the southern third of the country,” the National Weather Service said.
“It is very unsafe outdoors for those susceptible to these extreme conditions,” it warned in a statement.
‘CATASTROPHIC DAMAGE” TO POWER GRIDS
Power crews worked into the night to try to restore service to homes and businesses, and officials in some areas said the job could take up to a week. Utilities in Ohio, Virginia and Maryland described damage to their power grids as catastrophic.
Six people were killed in Virginia in storm-related incidents, and more than 1 million customers were left without power in the worst outage not linked to a hurricane in the state’s history, said Bob Spieldenner, a spokesman for the Virginia Department of Emergency Management.
Two Maryland residents died in the storm – one struck by a falling tree in Anne Arundel County, the other electrocuted after a tree crashed into a house in Montgomery County – said state emergency management agency spokesman Edward Hopkins.
In a late Sunday morning update, Maryland Emergency Management Agency spokesman Ed McDonough said a Chesapeake Bay boater was still missing after the storm and 639,000 customers remained without power. That was down from more than 1 million Maryland customers without light, and crucial air conditioning, earlier on Sunday morning.
In New Jersey, two cousins aged 2 and 7 were killed by a falling tree in a state park. And in eastern Tennessee, heat was blamed for the deaths of two brothers, ages 3 and 5, in Bradley County. They had been playing outside in 105-degree Fahrenheit (41-degree Celsius) heat.
HEATED LABOR DISPUTE
Ohio, where one storm-related death was reported, faced similar difficulties. Outages hit two-thirds of the state with about 1 million homes and businesses left without electricity. Governor John Kasich said it could take a week to fully restore power.
West Virginia was also hard-hit by storm-related outages, with about 614,000 customers without power, said Terrance Lively, spokesman for the state emergency management agency.
Further north, the storm caused outages from Indiana, where 135,000 customers lost power, to New Jersey, where Atlantic County declared a state of emergency and at least 206,000 customers were without power.
In New York, a heated labor dispute threatened to compound problems posed by the summer heat wave, which has already put an added strain on the electrical grid for New York City and suburban Westchester county.
Power utility Consolidated Edison Inc locked out its unionized workers early on Sunday after contract talks broke down, both sides said, raising the possibility of power cuts.
The company said it had asked to extend negotiations for two more weeks but the union, which had threatened a strike by its 8,500 workers over a new contract, refused. In response, the firm told union members not to report for work on Sunday.
That left managers and any crews the company can hire to fix whatever problems arise as 8.2 million New Yorkers crank up their air conditioners to beat the heat.
Records for June were broken on Friday in Washington, Nashville, Tennessee; and Louisville, Kentucky as well as Atlanta. The temperature hit at least 104 F (40 C) in all four cities, according to the National Weather Service.
(Additional reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis in Los Angeles, Paul Thomasch in New York, Susan Guyett in Indianapolis, Tim Ghianni in Nashville and Alistair Bull in Washington; Editing by Tom Brown and Sandra Maler)