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From Wildfires to Heat Wave, Extreme Weather Batters U.S.

July 2, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
The continuing U.S. heat wave has killed at least 22 people, while states try to grapple with storm-driven power outages on the East Coast and wildfires in the West. Tom Bearden reports on the experiences of families in Fort Collins, Colo., who returned to their homes after the wildfires to see what treasures had survived.

JEFFREY BROWN: Power grids in the eastern U.S. struggled to rebuild today, even as new storms did new damage overnight. The death toll reached 22 killed in six states since Friday, and for many thousands of others, there was only stifling heat and no air conditioning.

For a third day, utility crews logged long hours to restore power to some two million customers. And for a third day, many endured long hours of misery, after losing power in violent storms that struck Friday. It started around west Chicago, Illinois, with straight-line winds reaching 90 miles an hour.

From there, the storms blasted across Indiana and Ohio, leaving more than 50,000 people still in the dark today around Fort Wayne. The Mid-Atlantic may have been the hardest hit. And crews were called in from as far as Florida and Oklahoma with more machinery and manpower.

Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley briefed reporters this afternoon.

GOV. MARTIN O’MALLEY (D-MD): We are approaching the approximate mate level of crews in, in-state crews and mutual-aid out of state crews, that we had within a day or two after the hit of Hurricane Irene. So, there are another 800 crews arriving this evening that will be hard at work all day tomorrow as well.

JEFFREY BROWN: New storms struck in North Carolina overnight, putting more people in the dark. No power, of course, meant no air conditioning or refrigeration, even as severe heat blistered much of the country. And as the mercury rose, so did the frustration.

WOMAN: We cleaned out our refrigerator, our freezer, you know, dumped about $500 worth of food. And we have no food.


WOMAN: Please, help us get the power on.

JEFFREY BROWN: In the meantime, cooling centers were operating in public libraries and shopping malls to provide much-needed relief and to let people recharge essential batteries.

Others, like Arlington, Virginia, resident Gary Singer, found more creative ways to beat the heat.

GARY SINGER, Resident of Arlington, Virginia: We have no electricity. We have already been to Ikea, which is air conditioned, and the kids can run around. And now we’re here to cool off.

JEFFREY BROWN: Free bags of ice were distributed in some communities, like these in Maryland.

WOMAN: Oh, my goodness. Oh, thank God! So, we’re excited about ice.

JEFFREY BROWN: But for some with serious medical conditions, like John Doud of Wheaton, Maryland, the power outage posed a potential life-or-death threat.

JOHN DOUD, Resident of Wheaton, Maryland: I have got (INAUDIBLE) and I have got to take it. I have got to keep it cool. And, right now, when I can find it, that’s the only thing I can do the — enough of it in the refrigerator before it — so it doesn’t get over 84 degrees.

JEFFREY BROWN: Some came from far away to fill the need. This man drove from Mississippi to sell generators from the back of his truck in the Washington, D.C., area.

MAN: It’s for the public. That’s the biggest thing, try to get them back in power, get their — it’s for their services more than anything, and not for us.

JEFFREY BROWN: Beyond staying cool, just getting around was a challenge for many. Numerous traffic signals were still out, making the Monday morning commute especially difficult around Washington.

WOMAN: It was on your driver’s test. It’s a four-way stop. When the lights are out, please just stop. That’s, you know, a real issue, just trying to drive and get around.

JEFFREY BROWN: Partly in response, the federal government and other employers allowed workers to take flexible leave and alleviate congestion.

But for thousands, the only question that mattered was, when will the power come back? Utility companies warned that, for many, the answer could be not until the weekend.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now we turn to the wildfires in the western half of the U.S., where firefighters are hard at work in at least half a dozen states.

In South Dakota, an Air Force C-130 tanker plane crashed last night. At least one person was killed in the accident. Six people were said to be aboard while the plane was helping fight a fire. The cause of the accident is still being investigated.

In Colorado, fire crews are gaining more control against the Waldo Canyon fire near Colorado Springs. It’s now about 55 percent contained. Covering over 26 square miles, the fire has destroyed nearly 350 houses. More than 1,500 firefighters are working to stop its spread. Some of the residents who were ordered to leave are now being cleared to visit their home sites again.

NewsHour correspondent Tom Bearden joined some of those who returned this weekend following the High Park fire that did damage near Fort Collins.

PAT BAKER, Resident of Colorado: That tray was a silver tray that my daughter won.

TOM BEARDEN: Pat Baker points out the few family treasures she’s been able to dig out of the ashes of her home.

This is a World War I helmet.

PAT BAKER: It is. There’s some pottery that my stepson made in junior high or high school.

TOM BEARDEN: Baker, a Fort Collins math teacher, has lived on this property for 43 years in a home she built and where she raised two children. She was evacuated on June 9, when the High Park fire began. That fire burned nearly 90,000 acres and destroyed more than 260 homes. Baker was with her extended family when she heard about the fate of her house.

PAT BAKER: So I wailed and cried. And we had a big group hug of all these wonderful people.

Behind that was a little potting shed area.

TOM BEARDEN: This weekend, Baker’s family and other Rist Canyon residents were allowed back to assess the damage and start the long process of planning for the future.

Will you rebuild?

PAT BAKER: I hope so. It depends on my insurance. But, yes, I really hope to rebuild. I love it here. I’m not a town person. I have only lived on paved streets for eight years of my life. And that was graduate school and college. And the rest of the time, I have been a dirt road girl.

TOM BEARDEN: Baker’s insurance agent, Chris Frye, was there, taking measurements and promising that a check to begin rebuilding would arrive within days.

CHRIS FRYE, Farmers Insurance: The hardest part about a claim like this when you have lost your home is the stress and the hopeless feeling that you have. And if we can put money, you know, temporary money in their hands that they can function, I mean, the stress is not gone, but it’s diminished quite a bit.

ANNIE KAINU, Resident of Colorado: Looks like part of it kind of exploded outward.

TOM BEARDEN: Homeowner and truck driver Annie Kainu isn’t quite as lucky. She didn’t have any insurance on her home in Rist Canyon. And she’s not alone. It’s estimated that up to 25 percent of residents in the High Park area didn’t have coverage. Kainu said she had always paid cash when she made additions to her home, but never had enough money for an insurance policy.

Still, she’s optimistic that she will rebuild.

ANNIE KAINU: I have a wonderful company that I work for. And some resources are coming there. And I have started a little savings — well, sort of a bank. And I’m going to — whatever I accumulate there is strictly building fund money.

TOM BEARDEN: Kainu says she’s grateful for the assistance she’s already received. One example, a team of university biologists will give residents trees, bread, especially for fire areas.

ANNIE KAINU: They’re donating 25 trees and I’m looking to that greenery. And I hear my humming bird around. So, I’m happy about that.

Welcome to my house.

MAN: It’s pretty tough.

TOM BEARDEN: On Friday afternoon, Red Cross volunteers stopped by to check on her.

ANNIE KAINU: That was my quiet spot. But…

MAN: Here’s your chair.

TOM BEARDEN: The Red Cross is providing meals, counseling, and other assistance.

ANNIE KAINU: Well, thank you.

TOM BEARDEN: Kainu says she’s dealing with a bundle of emotions right now.

ANNIE KAINU: It’s kind of an up-and-down roller coaster. I’m very grateful. I’m happy for, like I said, the people that I have met that I wouldn’t have met with — you know, without this tragedy, the way people bond together. I feel grieved over the property. And I will probably feel very sad. You think of things you lost. But they’re all replaceable.

TOM BEARDEN: This fire has burned more than houses and trees. It also took out a major part of the electrical distribution system. It’s going to take time and a lot of money to replace it.

How many customers do you have out there?

MYLES JENSEN, Poudre Valley Rural Electric Association: We have got about 500.

TOM BEARDEN: Myles Jensen is with the Poudre Valley Rural Electric Association.

MYLES JENSEN: We had just rebuilt a lot of this line four days before the fire hit, brand-new line. And it was all gone. And we have got this line three-phase line we have to rebuild going down through here and you can see up in the background behind me. It is going to take a while. This is one of the hardest-hit areas for Poudre Valley. And it is going to be four to six weeks before we get it completely rebuilt and get everybody back on again.

TOM BEARDEN: More than 450 utility poles were destroyed, along with 150 transformers.

Steve Murrow is in charge of the operation to get them replaced.

STEVE MURROW, Poudre Valley Rural Electric Association: What we do is bring in crews, two-man teams in here on ATVs, and I had to work side by side with the Forest Service, assess the damages. And then we take that information back to our engineering department. And what they do is, they start drawing up how many poles it’s going to take, what kind of material it’s going to take to get that done.

TOM BEARDEN: Much of the work has to be done in very steep terrain.

MYLES JENSEN: In some of these areas, we can’t get equipment in. You can’t get a digger. You can’t get backhoes in. So, some of this stuff, they’re hand-digging. And some of these poles, they are 30-, 40-feet tall, weigh up to 500 pounds. It’s a job to get these things in the ground and get them up and going.

TOM BEARDEN: In spite of the tremendous damage and loss, the homeowners we spoke to said they were optimistic about returning to their mountain way of life.

PAT BAKER: Some of the things that are toasted are showing tiny little bits they’re going to come back. So some of it will come back. And then I will have to grow new things.

TOM BEARDEN: Pat Baker, an accomplished high-altitude gardener whose rare plants were featured in a Colorado magazine some years ago, says the fire is all part of a cycle.

PAT BAKER: You know, this ridge to my east, I have been here so long. I watched — when we moved here it was green. Then the first wave of beetles came in. And I saw it turn brown. And then the needles fell, and I saw it turn gray, and then I saw it turn green again. And then the beetles came again and it turned brown, and then now it’s going gray, and some of it is now black. But it’s going to come back. And I will watch it come back.

TOM BEARDEN: Thousands of other Colorado mountain dwellers share Baker’s hope to watch it all come back. But it will be many years before the forest regenerates.