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Violent storms strike area

On a day when spectacular thunderstorms might have contributed to two deaths, a second round of strong storms hammered parts of western Chester County this afternoon.

On a day when spectacular thunderstorms might have contributed to two deaths, a second round of strong storms hammered parts of western Chester County this afternoon.

However, the immediate Philadelphia area evidently has escaped the worst of them. While the drive home might be soggy, the nastiest rains were staying west of the city, said Jim Poirier, meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Mount Holly.

That was not the case this morning, when violent, potent thunderstorms with strobe-like lightning and drenching rains touched off numerous fires, bedeviled commuters, and might have been a factor in a tragedy on the Brandywine Creek.

Two kayakers drowned during an afternoon outing in the creek, which had been swollen by downpours during a dramatic round of thunderstorms.

Almost 2,000 lightning strikes were detected in the immediate Philadelphia area between 6 and 9 a.m., said Lee Robertson, meteorologist with the National Weather Service.

A second round of drenching storms formed during the afternoon, but they were not as damaging or as widespread as the morning's.

PECO said the morning storms caused about 10,000 power outages scattered throughout its coverage area.

And lightning-ignited fires broke out all over the place, including Philadelphia; Chester Springs, Chester County; Stafford Township, Ocean County; and Rehoboth Beach, Del.

A lightning bolt can heat the surrounding air to up to 18,000 degrees Fahrenheit - significantly hotter than the surface of the sun, said Richard J. Blakelee, senior researcher and lightning expert at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center, Huntsville, Ala.

One bolt set a barn on fire in Bedminster, Bucks County, and another forced the evacuation of an apartment building in West Philadelphia after blowing off part of the facade and sparking a small blaze.

As the storms rolled through, the thunderstorms turned day into night, snarled traffic, and drenched pedestrians.

The light show spoke to the intensity of the storms, said Blakeslee: The more lightning, the stronger the storms. For reasons that aren't entirely clear, he added, some storms produce more cloud-to-ground lightning than others, and the morning storms appeared to fit that profile. Typically, only about 25 percent of all bolts ever reach the ground; the rest travel from cloud to cloud.

The fireworks were the visible evidence that the region was caught in the cross-fire of an air-mass battleground, with a cool front trying to move eastward and a warm front nudging northward.

An inch of rain was measured in a mere 20 minutes in Drexel Hill during the morning. Some flooding was reported in the West Chester area, and standing water covered parts of the Schuylkill Expressway.

In Downingtown, close to 2 inches of rain was reported, puncutated with dime-size hail.

Some of that rain evidently engorged the Brandywine. Shortly after 1:40 p.m. emergency workers were called to the Brandywine Creek in East Bradford Township near the Brandywine Picnic Park, at Creek Road and Route 52. Police said an unidentified man was pulled from the swift-moving water and was taken to Chester County Hospital, where he died. Authorities last night were searching for his companion, who was presumed dead.

For all the rain, most of the reported flooding yesterday was minor. Stream levels still are recovering from what was generally a bone-dry winter.

But don't be surprised if flood threats pop up during the next few days. More showers are possible tomorrow, Thursday and Friday.