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Friday derecho destruction stretched 600 miles across 10 states

Posted at 10:25 PM, Jul 02, 2012
and last updated 2012-07-02 22:25:52-04

(CBS News/Chip Reid) In the East, millions are without power. In the West, thousands have fled their homes. Rarely do we see the power of wind and fire over so much of the nation at once.

The wind came in hurricane force, announced Friday night across the mid-Atlantic by lightning that some described as an artillery barrage. Destruction stretched 600 miles across ten states. Twenty-two were killed over the weekend, mostly by uprooted trees that had been turned over in 80 mile-an-hour winds. More than two million are still without power.

The ferocious storm that caused all this damage is known as a derecho, a widespread windstorm that moves in a straight line normally coupled with a heavy thunderstorm. In Spanish, it means “straight ahead” — which is exactly what this storm did.

In less than ten hour, the storm raced from Indiana to Washington D.C. Winds at times approached 100 miles-per-hour, toppling too many trees to count. The trees took down thousands of power lines, leaving more than 3 million people in six states in the dark.

Ninety minutes before the storm hit the Washington area, the National Weather Service forecast severe thunderstorms with significant wind damage. Even so, many were caught by surprise. In Lake Ridge, Va., witnesses reported “fire in the sky.”

But the Weather Service’s Katie Garrett says even the experts were impressed how fast the derecho moved. Derechos are common in the Midwest, but once every four years it makes it to the Midwest, powered by powerful Gulf Stream winds.

“What happens is you have a wall of wind really coming in ahead of the thunder through the lightning and the heavy rain,” Garrett told CBS News.

One million of the 2.5 million Dominion Virginia Power Company customers lost their power in the storm, and 170,000 are still without lights tonight.

“This was a very atypical storm,” Ken Barker with Dominion Virginia Power Company explained. “This was, in our 100 year history, the largest non-hurricane storm we’ve had. So our hope is we won’t have another one for along time.”

With a slow moving hurricane, Barker says there are days to prepare. But with a derecho, by the time you know it’s coming, it’s too late to do much more than take cover.

“We’re doing the best we can,” he stated. “We’ll continue to get better at it, but again, Mother Nature won this one.”

The National Weather Service predicted severe thunderstorms all along the back of the storm but no one predicted a storm this big.