WASHINGTON — Utility crews struggled to catch up with a backlog of millions of people without electricity for a fourth hot day Tuesday as frustration grew and authorities feared the toll of 24 storm deaths could rise because of stifling conditions and generator fumes.
Power was back for more than a million customers but lights— and air-conditioning — were still out for about 1.26 million homes and businesses in seven states and the District of Columbia. The damage was done by powerful wind storms that swept from the Midwest to the Mid-Atlantic late Friday, toppling trees and branches into power lines and knocking out big transmission towers and electrical substations.
Utilities were warning that many neighborhoods could remain in the dark for much of the week, if not beyond. Public officials and residents were growing impatient.
"This has happened time after time and year after year, and it seems as if they're always unprepared," said John Murphy, a professional chauffeur from Burtonsville, Md., who was waiting for Pepco to restore power Monday to the homes of himself and his mother and sister, who live nearby.
The wave of late Friday evening storms, called 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.
So utility companies had to wait days for extra crews traveling from as far away as Quebec and Oklahoma. And workers found that the toppled trees and power lines often entangled broken equipment in debris that had to be removed before workers could even get started.
Adding to the urgency of the repairs are the sick and elderly, who are especially vulnerable without air conditioning in the sweltering triple-digit heat. Many sought refuge in hotels or basements.