FRANCONIA, Va. — Two days after thunderstorms tore across the eastern United States, power failures were forcing people to get creative to stay cool in dangerously hot weather. Temperatures topped 100 degrees Sunday in many storm-stricken areas, and utility officials said the electricity will probably be out for several more days.
About 3 million residents faced the grim reality of stifling homes, spoiled food, and a looming commute in communities without traffic lights.
‘‘If we don’t get power tonight, we’ll have to throw everything away,’’ Susan Fritz, a mother of three, said of the food in her refrigerator and freezer. Fritz came to a library in Bethesda, Md., so her son could do school work. She charged her phone and iPad at her local gym. Other residents sought refuge at shopping malls, theaters, and pools.
The storms were blamed for 17 deaths, most from trees falling on homes and cars.
On Sunday, Coast Guard officials said they had suspended the search for a man who disappeared Saturday while boating during the storm off Maryland.
The bulk of the damage was in West Virginia, Washington, D.C., and the Virginia and Maryland suburbs of the capital.
At least six of the deaths were reported in Virginia, including a 90-year-old woman who was killed when a tree fell on her home. Two young cousins in New Jersey were killed when a tree fell on their tent while camping. Two were killed in Maryland, one in Ohio, one in Kentucky, and one in Washington.
On Sunday, authorities reported that three more people were killed when a sudden storm struck in eastern North Carolina, damaging homes and uprooting trees. A 77-year-old man was killed when high winds collapsed a barn as he was moving an ATV into it, and a husband and wife died when a tree fell on their golf cart.
From Atlanta to Richmond, temperatures neared or reached triple digits Sunday. Officials urged residents to check on their elderly relatives and neighbors, many of whom had lost air conditioning in blackouts. It was tough to find a free pump at gas stations that did have power, and cars were lined up at fast-food drive-throughs.
States worked to make sure the power stayed on at water treatment plants so that people at least had clean water. Chain saws buzzed throughout neighborhoods as utility crews scrambled to untangle downed trees and power lines. Neighbors banded together.
‘‘Food, ice — we’re all sharing,’’ said 51-year-old Elizabeth Knight, who lives in the blue-collar Richmond suburb of Lakeside.
The Friday evening storms, a meteorological phenomenon known as 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. Not so this time.
‘‘Unlike a polite hurricane that gives you three days of warning, this storm gave us all the impact of a hurricane without any of the warning,’’ Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley said Sunday on CNN’s ‘‘State of the Union.’’
Power crews from as far away as Florida and Oklahoma were on their way to the mid-Atlantic region to help get the power back on and the air conditioners running again. Even if people have generators, gas-run devices often don’t have enough power to run air conditioners.
And power restoration was spotty: Several people said they remained without power even though the lights were on at neighbors’ homes across the street. O’Malley promised that he would push utility companies to get electricity restored as quickly as possible.
National Guard troops were brought in to help in New Jersey and West Virginia. Crews had for the most part cleared debris from major roadways, and signals were working in many major intersections. But officials still had much work to do on secondary roads.
Sixty-year-old John Swift was content to rough it, at least for now. The Lakeside resident has a camping stove for cooking, doesn’t mind cold showers, and doesn’t watch TV even when the power is working. He can charge his phone in his car, he said. ‘‘It’s hot. That’s the biggest nuisance, the biggest concern,’’ he said.
Forecasters warned the high temperatures put people at risk for heat exhaustion and heat stroke. The National Weather Service told people to drink plenty of fluids, and to stay in air-conditioned rooms if possible Some cities gave residents free admission to swimming pools. Fire authorities also warned people to be careful when using candles to help light darkened homes.