When my friends Bella and Andrey from Baltimore showed up on my doorstep in the sweltering heat yesterday to enjoy the air-conditioning of my Washington apartment, they reminded me of the Soviet refugees they once were.

Since the violent storms of Saturday, they had been among the three million people in the Washington and Baltimore area hit by power cuts who had been scouring the city for supplies or joining the crowds in shopping centres for air-conditioned respite.

With a heatwave gripping the eastern US and temperatures in the high 30s, they drove in search of ice to preserve the contents of their freezer. They had no electricity and phone lines were down. People were panic buying torches in the local stores.

Petrol stations were closed, streetlights were off after dark and traffic lights were out. Reacting to the apocalyptic scenes, authorities told motorists to stay at home today to avoid the traffic gridlock that certainly awaits, and warned that it was likely to take days to restore the power.


The region was hit by a perfect storm, known in meteorological terms as a derecho, leaving 17 peopledead.

Bella knows exactly what time the destructive winds combined with thunderstorms struck Baltimore because her clock stopped at 11.10pm.

In my neighbourhood in southeast Washington, trees were smashed by the force of the storm and buses were diverted the next morning to avoid the tree trunks in the streets. But I was oblivious to the gravity of the situation elsewhere until a friend called to ask whether our dinner at my place was cancelled. All the power in her district in northwest Washington had been out and she could still smell the smoke from a tree cracked open by lightning in her backyard.

Unfortunately for Andrey, it was the Euro 2012 football final. He had watched every lead-up match. Before coming to Washington, he visted his friend Roman, another former refugee from the Soviet Union whose power was working, except for the TV.

They thought that they had come to the promised land when they arrived in America more than 25 years ago. But now they know that they face outages with every major snowstorm or rainstorm because of the overhead powerlines (compared to underground ones in Russia). "Who would have thought that something like this could happen here, and never in Russia," Roman fumed.


The United States is in the grip of weather-related disasters from the Rocky Mountains to the Atlantic Coast.


Seventeen people have died and 2.5 million people in the eastern United States sweltered in up to 40C without electricity and air-conditioning - the result of an unusually powerful storm that blasted an eight-state area and the District of Columbia.


In Colorado, firefighters have contained about 45 per cent of the Waldo Canyon fire outside Colorado Springs. Those forced to evacuate from the nearly 350 homes destroyed over past days took official tours of the disaster site yesterday. Drought in the mountainous region provided dry tinder for the bushfires, which have claimed two lives.