An hour later, a fisherman was swept overboard near the Brigantine Bridge off Atlantic City as he and two companions tried to bring their 20-foot skiff to safety through the storm. His body was recovered about 5 a.m.
By late Saturday, authorities had not released the names of the victims. The boys, cousins aged 7 and 2, were from Millville, in Cumberland County, and Franklin Township, in Gloucester County.
The Coast Guard provided no information about the identity of the dead fisherman.
Uprooted trees, downed power lines, and roadway flooding created major problems for emergency workers who scrambled to assess the damage on the ground.
Also troubling is the potential for economic devastation as businesses and summer-rental owners faced the prospect of no electricity for days at the beginning of a week that leads into the Fourth of July, the traditional start of the summer tourist season.
At a news conference Saturday night, Vincent Maione, president of Atlantic City Electric, said he hoped that a "majority" of 160,000 customers without power at that point would have it restored by Wednesday evening - July 4 - but "quite a few" won't have power until the end of the week.
The repairs, Maione said in a phone interview later, had to start with damage to some of the biggest transmission wires, which feed substations. At the height of the outages, 206,000 customers were without power.
Atlantic City's casino and tourist areas were not hard hit, according to officials, and were operating normally.
The affected area included some spots in Margate, Ventnor, and Longport, but Maione said barrier-island towns were, generally, not as badly hit as some Shore communities.
Maione said the utility understood the angst of Shore businesses and the tourists affected by outages going into a holiday week.
But he also said an immediate concern Saturday was communicating with about 30 nursing homes that lost power, so the operators could decide whether seniors would have to be evacuated.
Area hospitals, using backup generators, remained in service throughout the storm and most had their electricity restored by Saturday afternoon.
Effective 9:00 pm, June 30, 2012, In order to preserve order and protect public safety, a curfew between the hours of 9:00 pm and 6:00 am will be in effect and will remain until further notice in all municipalities within Atlantic County with the exception of Atlantic City. This will not prevent individuals who are lawfully evacuating, from conducting those activities necessary to affect a speedy and efficient evacuation.
Gov. Christie, after a briefing by officials at the Atlantic County Office of Emergency Management in Egg Harbor Township, said the National Guard would be used to help provide fuel and water in certain areas.
He also said communications systems were still not operating fully, a problem that was being addressed.
Christie said he was not yet ready to declare the region a disaster area, but that option was being considered. Earlier in the day, Atlantic County officials declared a state of emergency, limiting travel.
"This storm came upon us very quickly without a great deal of notice," Christie said. "And the devastation that was caused was pretty significant."
In Atlantic County earlier in the day, roads had been snarled with traffic as thousands of vacationers headed for the Shore.
Many arrived to find debris scattered across usually pristine sidewalks and their vacation rental units without electricity - and air-conditioning.
In Longport, the Church of the Redeemer, built in 1908 and listed on both state and national historic registries, was gutted by a fire believed to have been sparked when lightning struck the building's tower.
The storm and electrical problems also halted Amtrak rail service for several hours between Philadelphia and Baltimore with hundreds of passengers stranded at Philadelphia's 30th Street Station. Limited service was restored about 4 p.m.
Valerie Meola, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Mount Holly, said the fast-moving and highly charged storm, known as a derecho, hit the Shore area about 1 a.m.
The system developed in the Midwest and moved across the country as a line of severe thunderstorms. High heat and humidity after dark helped create a very unstable situation, Meola said.
"It was like a big pot with everything getting stirred together," she said of the volatile storm pattern.
Winds were reported between 60 to 75 m.p.h., and some areas received up to an inch and a half of rain, she said.
The short but ferocious storm featured straight-line winds and an intensity that frightened both hardened locals and summer visitors with sustained flashing of lightning and hurricane-force howling. It uprooted trees, mangled awnings, snapped flagpoles, and twisted the American flags that line the streets of Ventnor and Margate.
"It was the worst storm I've ever experienced," said Jeanie Tini, 53, of Margate and Berwyn, waiting in line to buy gas in Margate, one of the only places in the area that had power to pump gas. "I can't remember anything like it."
"They say you hear the freight train," said John Sciolla, 53. "Well, I heard the freight train."
Entire trees along Atlantic and Ventnor Avenues were pulled from their roots, buckling sidewalks, blocking streets, and snapping power lines. The storm destroyed lifeguard stands and boats, leaving lifeguards to sit in beach chairs on some blocks.
"I've never seen anything like it," said Megan Keller, 21, of Margate.
Keller said she was with friends at Maynard's, a popular bar, when the storm hit. She and others went outside and then quickly headed back inside.
"It was pretty insane," said the lifelong Shore resident. "People were hiding. It started out as a normal Friday night, then the storm hit. . . . The lightning kept going on and on. It was like a strobe light."
Keller was among dozens of residents who were lined up outside Aversa's Bakery in the 9300 block of Ventnor Avenue late Saturday morning.
Aversa's was one of the few businesses open, even without electricity.
Elizabeth Aversa said she and her husband arrived about 4 a.m. and saw the streets littered with debris. With no electricity, she said, her husband loaded a truck and took dough and other products to another bakery they operate in Turnersville.
What he couldn't take, she began to bake in the store's gas-heated ovens, selling off bread, bagels, and other breakfast staples at half price.
A line quickly formed outside the bakery.
"People were desperate," she said.
A Wawa across the street did not open, nor did several other coffee shops and delis along the avenue. Without electricity they were unable to function.
At the bakery, Aversa began boiling water in pots placed in the ovens so that she could make coffee for her customers.
"I could have charged $10 a cup," she said.
Instead, she sold everything at half price.
Margate, Ventnor, and Longport were among the hardest-hit Shore areas. Farther inland, Galloway and Hamilton Townships, in Atlantic County, also took the brunt of the storm, with stores and shops, including the sprawling Hamilton Mall, darkened.
Keller said she and friends were deciding whether to stay in town or head over to Atlantic City, where there was electricity.
"I may just hang in one of the casinos where there's air-conditioning," she said.
Thousands of others did what Shore-goers usually do on a hot Saturday: They headed for the surf.
On the beach at Dorset Avenue in Ventnor, lifeguard Mike Wright said nearly all of the city's lifeguard stands had disappeared overnight.
"All of them were gone. We don't know where they are," he said, sitting on a stand that was recently repaired. "They're just destroyed. We have some lifeguards sitting on trash cans and beach chairs."
Fire guts a historic Longport church. A5.
Reaching out to those stuck on the streets. B8.
Contact Amy S. Rosenbergat 215-854-2681, firstname.lastname@example.org,
or follow on Twitter @amysrosenberg.
Jacqueline L. Urgo, Frank Kummer, and Julie Zauzmer contributed to this article.