Officials say it may be days before electricity is restored after a line of destructive thunderstorms early Saturday brought hurricane-force wind gusts and sustained winds upward of 65 to 70 mph to South Jersey — downing trees, power lines, lifeguard stands, boats and signs, and killing at least three people.

At the storms’ peak, more than 200,000 Atlantic City Electric customers statewide were without power, and utility officials say it may be days before electricity is restored. Gov. Chris Christie on Saturday ordered the National Guard to bring in power generators and water.

The storms also may be to blame for the death of a man after the boat he and his cousin were on capsized in Absecon Bay, the Coast Guard said. Two children, ages 2 and 7, were killed when a 50-foot pine tree snapped in the strong winds and fell on their tent in Parvin State Park in Salem County.

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A downed power pole may also be to blame for sparking a fire that destroyed the 104-year-old Church of the Redeemer in Longport.

The storms moved quickly across the state, but their vastness still meant that the region was raked by winds up to 80 mph in places for nearly 30 minutes. Some area residents said they thought a tornado hit. Others listened to the shingles and pieces of siding ripping from their homes as rain and hail lashed against structures.

Atlantic County declared a state of emergency at 6 a.m. Saturday, banning all nonessential travel, but traffic still kept coming as tourists arriving for the Fourth of July weekend were driving through what had become a disaster area. Many major intersections had no working traffic lights, and in some municipalities no police were available to direct motorists.

“Atlantic County is still in a state of emergency, so we’re asking residents for their cooperation to stay off the roadways to help everyone do their jobs,” said spokeswoman Linda Gilmore.

The lack of power also meant that gas stations could not operate, and those needing fuel had to drive to only a handful of stations that were open. Long lines formed, and some motorists waited up to several hours to get gas as tensions rose.

Coast Guard Petty Officer Nick Ameen said that the Coast Guard received a call regarding a capsized vessel and that a helicopter was dispatched to Absecon Bay near Brigantine. Officers rescued a man, but due to a language barrier, officers did not find out there was another man in the water for some time, Ameen said. Crews ultimately found that man, but he had died.

In Longport, an intense fire raged at the historic Church of the Redeemer. Officials said that it appeared the wind knocked a power pole into the church’s tower, sparking the fire. By 3:30 a.m., crews from Atlantic City, Margate, Ventnor, Ocean City and Marmora were on the scene assisting Longport, said Atlantic County Fire Marshal Whitey Swartz.

The church’s services had just begun for the season, said Tom Subranni, the church’s chairman of the board, and the congregation hopes to have Sunday services in a small side yard.

Longport resident Jerome DiPencino said the rumbling of the thunder woke him up and then the wind. DiPencino stood on the front steps of the house across the street from the church, along with about a half dozen others, watching the fire burn.

“You always hear people say it sounds like a freight train, and that’s what it sounded like,” DiPencino said of the wind. DiPencino said a tree toppled in his yard and there was some damage to siding and roof shingles, but “compared to this, it’s nothing.”

Longport resident Suzy Lawler also came out to watch the fire from her house on 32nd Street. She said the transformer by her house blew. “I don’t think we will have power for days,” Lawler said of the region. “Not a good thing for the Fourth of July weekend, especially when you just loaded in for the weekend.”

The thunderstorms were part of a rare type of windstorm called a “derecho,” which formed over Indiana on Friday afternoon, moving toward the eastern states at between 50 and 60 mph, said Valerie Meola, a meterologist with the National Weather Service in Mount Holly. The storms stretched from Allentown, Pa., to southern Virginia as they began moving into South Jersey. The system, whose momentum was sustained as a result of the extreme heat baking the East Coast for a second day, lasted longer than 10 hours and never lost its strength as it moved across the mountains and ultimately to South Jersey.

In Atlantic City, hurricane-force winds caused large trees, some as much as 100 years old, to fall, said Tom Foley, Director of Emergency Management. No one was injured in the city, but six people were evacuated from a Cedar Court house after a tree fell into it, Foley said.

The storm also destroyed trailers remaining on Bader Field from Metallica’s Orion Music + More Festival, which was held last weekend, Foley said.

Besides the fire at the Church of the Redeemer in Longport, a house incurred major smoke and water damage after a fire started in the structure’s attic, Swartz said.

Northern Cape May County escaped significant storm damage, according to the Woodbine barracks of the State Police, which covers Woodbine, Upper Township and Dennis Township.

Ocean City Fire Capt. Gary Green watched the storm barrel through Atlantic County from his home in Linwood.

“I’ve never seen red and green and blue lightning before,” he said. “It was the weirdest thing.”

Staff writers Michael Miller, Lynda Cohen, Hoa Nguyen, Emily Previti and Wallace McKelvey contributed to this report.

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Follow Sarah Watson on Twitter @acpresssarah

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