Passing motorists Charles Jenkins (center) and Tyler Hackworth (center right) work with members of the Lynchburg Fire Department to clear a tree that fell due to heavy winds across the southbound lanes of U.S. 501 in Lynchburg, Va., Thursday.
WASHINGTON — A massive storm system that started in the Upper Midwest brought soaking rains and heavy winds to the Mid-Atlantic Thursday, causing widespread power outages, flash flooding and extensive flight delays, but largely failing to live up to its fierce billing.
The severe weather was also blamed for two deaths.
The storm came and went in the Washington, D.C., area ahead of the evening rush hour, bringing winds and thunder that knocked trees onto houses, cut power to thousands of homes and traffic signals and led to the brief closure of a bridge that connects to the beaches on Maryland's Eastern shore.
Three tornadoes were reported in Maryland, though there were no immediate reports that they caused significant damage.
"The wind was pretty bad. It was just a squall that came through really fast," said Jim Estes, director of instruction at a golf driving range in Olney, a Washington suburb where one tornado was reported.
In Richmond, Va., a 4-year-old boy was fatally struck by a tree that toppled while he was visiting a park with his father. Capt. Emmett Williams of the Richmond police said the boy was crushed by an old yellow tulip poplar tree that became uprooted from rain-soaked grounds during heavy winds and rains. The father was taken to the hospital with non-life-threatening injuries. Maymont Park board member Mary Lynn Bayliss said workers with bullhorns were scrambling around the 100 acres of preserved woodlands and gardens to try to get people to safety.
Lightning from a fast-moving storm may have sparked a fire that killed a western Pennsylvania man early Thursday, the state fire marshal said.
And during an initial wave of morning storms, a 19-year-old woman who works as an intern at Plumpton Park Zoo in Rising Sun, Md., northeast of Baltimore, was struck by lightning while feeding the animals. She was being treated at a hospital after a co-worker performed CPR.
Dire predictions from forecasters, including warnings throughout the region of tornadoes and thunderstorms, led to precautions throughout several states.
Maryland transit officials briefly closed the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, a critical artery connecting the Baltimore-Washington area with Delaware and Maryland's Eastern Shore. Customers and employees of Baltimore Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport were directed at one point to seek shelter, in a bathroom or in the lowest level of the terminal, amid the threat of tornadoes.
Flightstats.com reported that hundreds of flights were cancelled and thousands more were delayed at East Coast and Midwest airports on Thursday, with the New York-Washington corridor particularly affected.
As of Thursday night, there were about 30,000 outages in Maryland, the state emergency management agency said, and more than 300,000 in Virginia.
The Mid-Atlantic wasn't the only region to get hit Thursday. Lightning lit up the sky over Atlanta Thursday evening, as a line of thunderstorms moved through north and central Georgia. Georgia Power reported that nearly 1000,000 customers had lost power as of 8:30 p.m.
In North Carolina, weather forecasters and utility companies reported downed trees and more than 157,000 customers without power, mostly in the Piedmont region.
Still, overall, the storms appear to have caused less wind damage than was feared through early Thursday, said Bill Bunting of the National Weather Service's Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Okla. Whether they were as bad as anticipated, he said, "depends on where you live."
He said thunderstorms took longer than expected to merge into a large line that could cause widespread damage. The merger also happened farther east than expected, which limited the potential for widespread damage in Illinois and Indiana, though those states still had pockets of severe weather.
Even before merging, the individual storms remained powerful, Bunting said.
Besides reports of damaging winds and preliminary tornado sightings, the weather service has received reports of hail at least an inch in diameter in locations stretching from southeast Minnesota to Virginia, he said.