|People play in the fountain at Washington Square Park in New York July 1, 2012. REUTERS/Eric Thayer
WASHINGTON - Relentless heat was forecast for much of the eastern United States for a fourth straight day on Monday, with about 2.2 million customers without power after violent storms and soaring temperatures killed at least 15 people.
Power companies warned it could take several days to restore electricity completely in some areas as much of the United States sweltered in a record-breaking heat wave.
“Hot and hotter will continue to be the story from the plains to the Atlantic Coast for the next few days,” the National Weather Service said.
Emergencies were declared in Maryland, Ohio, Virginia, West Virginia and Washington because of damage from a rare “super derecho” storm packing hurricane-force winds across a 1,100 kilometre stretch from the Midwest to the Atlantic Ocean.
About 2.2 million homes and businesses from Illinois to New Jersey were still without power Monday morning, with the biggest concentration of outages in the Washington area.
With power lines down across the region, the U.S. government told federal workers in the Washington area they could take unscheduled leave or work from home.
Many schools and local governments also canceled programs or were closed because of outages.
The storms came amid a record-setting heat wave that has seen temperatures top 38C in several southern cities. In Atlanta, the mercury hit an all-time record of 41C on Saturday.
From St. Louis to Washington, temperatures were forecast to hit more records on Monday.
Excessive heat warnings and advisories continued on Monday over much of the mid-Mississippi Valley and southern states.
Strong to severe thunderstorms were possible across the southern mid-Atlantic region and north-central United States, the National Weather Service said.
DAMAGE TO POWER GRIDS
Thunderstorms and high winds battered eastern North Carolina on Sunday afternoon, causing three more deaths on top of at least 12 caused by the deadly storms and heat in several states on Saturday.
Powerful storms that brought wind gusts of up to 90 mph (145 kph) on Sunday knocked out power to more than 200,000 Commonwealth Edison customers in northeastern Illinois. About 100,000 remained without power on Monday, the utility said.
Utilities in Ohio, Virginia and Maryland described damage to their power grids as catastrophic.
FirstEnergy utilities in states from Ohio to New Jersey had about 314,000 customers without power. The company said it expected to restore electricity to its Maryland, Ohio and Pennsylvania customers by Tuesday and Wednesday, but it could be late in the week before power was restored to all its customers in West Virginia.
Pepco, which serves Washington and much of its suburbs in Maryland and Virginia, reported about 235,000 without power on Monday morning. Baltimore Gas & Electric said about 235,000 customers remained without power.
Storms killed six people in Virginia and left more than 1 million customers without power. Two people were killed in Maryland, officials said.
A falling tree killed two cousins, aged 2 and 7, in New Jersey. Heat was blamed for the deaths of two brothers, ages 3 and 5, in Tennessee who had been playing outside in temperatures reaching 41C.
AccuWeather, a weather forecaster, said the “super derecho” storm that caused the widespread damage had raced more than 1,100 kilometres from northern Indiana to the Atlantic coast in 12 hours.
A derecho -- Spanish for “straight” -- is a long-lasting wind storm that accompanies fast-moving thunderstorms or showers, AccuWeather said. The most powerful derechos are called “super derechos,” described by AccuWeather as a “land hurricane.”