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Washington Post 07-26-2010 (Lee-Weil)

Fast-moving storm batters D.C. area; 2 deaths, mass power outages reported

By Stephanie Lee and Martin Weil
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 26, 2010; B01 

(c) 2010 Washington Post

One of the most violent and destructive thunderstorms in years ripped across the Washington region Sunday, knocking out power to hundreds of thousands of homes and businesses, starting fires, damaging houses, and causing at least two deaths.

A 6-year-old boy was killed when struck by a falling section of a tree in Loudoun County about 3:15 p.m. And a woman was killed when a tree fell on a minivan in College Park about 3:30 p.m.

Power was cut off to a WSSC plant that supplies 70 percent of the water for Montgomery and Prince George's counties. Authorities asked residents to curb consumption and refrain from any outdoor use.

"We're calling for mandatory water restrictions to ensure fire protection and to ensure everyone can have at least a minimum" of water for household use, said a WSSC spokesman.

Amid gusts said to be 60 mph or more, trees and branches across the area toppled onto electrical wires, streets and houses. Roofs were lifted from buildings. Roads were blocked, and dozens of traffic signals went dark.

Late Sunday night, about 400,000 homes and businesses from Northern Virginia to Maryland remained in the dark. More than 290,000 Pepco customers were without electricity, the vast majority in Montgomery County.

Stores, movie theaters and concerts went dark, as did some Metro stations. Montgomery fire department personnel freed residents from stalled elevators. A Metro passenger was trapped in an elevator at the Wheaton Station; after being extricated, she was treated for heat exhaustion.

Some Pepco customers said an automated telephone-line message told them that electricity might not be restored for at least a week, but a spokeswoman for the utility said no estimate for full restoration had been made.

The number of outages in the Pepco service area appeared to be the largest since Hurricane Isabel in 2003.

With power and air conditioning out in thousands of Prince George's homes, county executive Jack Johnson said that six fire stations and all community and recreation centers would be open as cooling stations.

"I ask everyone to check on their neighbors to be sure they are safe," he said.

The Loudoun death occurred as the boy was walking on a trail with his family near the Claude Moore Recreation Center in Sterling, a spokesman for the county sheriff's department said.

The woman who died in her vehicle on Rhode Island Avenue, near Odessa Road in College Park, was described as being in her 40s. Mark Brady, a spokesman for the Prince George's fire and EMS department, said the woman's mother, who was also in the vehicle, was taken to a hospital with serious injuries.

Torrents of rain flooded roads. High winds overturned boats. Wind and rain scattered marchers and spectators at the end of a downtown Washington parade.

Amid the storm's powerful gusts, wind ripped part of the roof from an apartment building in the 9300 block of Cherry Hill Road in the Beltsville area, displacing 24 families, Brady said.

Branches and wires fell onto cars on Montana Avenue in Northeast Washington, setting the cars ablaze, the D.C. fire department said. A column of smoke was visible for miles, said department spokesman Pete Piringer.

In the Garrett Park Estates section of Kensington, a maple tree at least four feet in diameter crashed onto two cars on Cushing Drive. It snapped a utility pole and dragged power lines with it.

Firefighters with a chain saw extricated a man from the second floor of a house on Danville Court in the Rockville area after a tree fell on it, said Capt. Oscar Garcia, a Montgomery fire department spokesman.

Similar scenarios played out across the region. Trees fell in Potomac and in Purcellville, near the Chesapeake Bay in Annapolis, and near Harpers Ferry in West Virginia. Whipped by winds and pelted by rain, people in the District helped police free parked cars from under a section of a fallen tree in the 2000 block of E Street NW, a few blocks from the White House. In upper Northwest Washington, trees damaged houses on Cumberland Street, McKinley Street and Aberfoyle Place.

Christy Waters, 41, was napping at home in Bethesda when she was awakened by wind "so loud and explosive I thought it was a tornado."

She looked outside onto the 7700 block of Cayuga Avenue to see a giant tree branch hit her lounge chair and fling it into the air. Her neighbor, she said, lost half of her roof.

One tree fell onto Metro Red Line tracks between Rockville and Shady Grove. Trains were forced to use a single track on that stretch for a time.

Sweeping in a generally eastward direction, the storm -- a line of storms, actually -- caught many by surprise.

Among them were participants in the Boy Scouts of America Grand Centennial Parade and spectators. At the end of the route on Constitution Avenue NW, some scouts were seen running through the wind and rain, kerchiefs and caps flying.

Several boats overturned in the Potomac River near Virginia Avenue NW, the D.C. fire department said. D.C. firefighters helped pluck three people from the water.

With little warning to those at a pool in Southwest Washington, wind hoisted deck umbrellas into the air. One flew over a brick wall. Another began to levitate the table to which it was attached.

Authorities urged people not to touch downed wires and to treat intersection with darkened signals as four-way stops.

Before the storm struck, high temperatures again made the day one of Washington's hottest.

At Reagan National Airport, the 99-degree high made Sunday the 12th consecutive day of 90 degrees or above, and the 42nd this year.

The reading at National fell one degree short of an 80-year record, but records were set at Dulles International Airport and at Baltimore-Washington International Marshall Airport.

At Dulles, the high was 98 degrees at 1:47 p.m., exceeding the old mark of 97, set in 1987.

At BWI, the temperature was 100 degrees, one degree higher than the record set 86 years ago.

During and after the Boy Scouts' parade in the District, emergency crews evaluated more than 100 persons with heat-related problems. Six were taken to hospitals, Piringer said.

The storms dropped the temperature sharply. At National, the mercury fell 25 degrees in less than an hour as the rain arrived.