WASHINGTON (AFP) – President Barack Obama hailed the selfless dedication of the US military’s “9/11 generation,” on a scorchingly hot July 4 holiday Wednesday as Americans gathered to celebrate Independence Day.
Barely four months before a general election, Obama hosted a barbecue and fireworks at the White House and in a speech steeped in patriotic fervor sought to lift the mood after storms led some US states to cancel their festivities.
More than a million customers remain without power five days after hurricane force winds tore across the country, wreaking havoc from Illinois to Ohio to Kentucky, and causing destruction in and around the capital Washington.
The consequent lack of air conditioning made July 4 a miserably hot day for many but Obama focused his attention on the armed forces and praised citizens for organizing events to mark the 236th year of independence from Britain.
“Happy Fourth of July everybody,” the president, alongside First Lady Michelle Obama, told his guests on the White House lawn, thanking all three armed forces plus the US Coast Guard for their commitment to duty.
“Today, all across America, at schools, and beaches, and in town squares, Americans are celebrating the freedoms that all of you and your families defend. Like many of them, we’re grilling in the backyard,” Obama said.
“All the men and women who stand with us here this afternoon are an example of this generation of heroes — this 9/11 generation that has earned its place in history alongside the greatest generations.”
The capital’s massive fireworks show lit up the skyline for an uninterrupted 17 minutes shortly after 9pm (0100 GMT), with revelers watching from office rooftops and drivers honking their horns on the streets below.
Many other firework displays, however, were axed due to the aftermath of last Friday’s fatal thunderstorms — 20 deaths have been attributed to the bad weather.
Falling trees snapped power lines and companies have since struggled to get power back to many homes. The mercury soared back above 90 degrees Fahrenheit (32 degrees Celsius) on Wednesday, leaving many people longing for respite.
West Virginia, one of nine states heavily hit, had the highest number of customers without power at roughly 317,000, according to a US Department of Energy statement on Wednesday morning.
Traditional barbeque events had to be re-arranged as partygoers looked to take cover in cooling shelters.
The National Weather Service, meanwhile, warned of large hail and damaging winds in the Great Lakes region, especially in northern Minnesota, potentially throwing a wrench into festivities there.
In Chicago, the sizzling heat could make this year’s holiday the hottest in a century.
And in the western state of Colorado where wildfires have been raging, firework extravaganzas, an annual draw for young and old alike, were scrapped to avoid sparking more blazes that have left hundreds homeless.
The US election rhetoric also intensified earlier in the day as Obama and Republican rival Mitt Romney sought to capitalize on the patriotic undertones of Independence Day.
Obama held a naturalization ceremony for active duty members in the White House mid-morning, where he lauded the United States.
“No other nation constantly renews itself, refreshes itself with the hopes, and the drive, and the optimism, and the dynamism of each new generation of immigrants,” the president told the group.
His speech to people who had immigrated from as far afield as Guatemala, Nigeria and Ukraine was a clear nod to a recent shift in his administration’s immigration policy, aimed at securing the Democrat a second White House term.
Romney, taking a week off to spend time with his family at an upscale lakeside property in Wolfeboro, New Hampshire, was due to participate in a parade in the New England town.
“As we gather to enjoy food and fireworks, let us also take a moment to pay tribute to the patriots who signed the Declaration of Independence — and the brave men and women who have fought to protect our freedoms through every generation that has followed,” he said in a statement.
“With so many around the world still consigned to tyranny, the Fourth of July is a time to appreciate the blessing of liberty and be thankful that we are Americans.”
Despite the dire weather scenarios faced by many, large scale celebrations were still going on in New York and Boston.
Headlines of quirky Fourth of July traditions also were not to be missed, with an annual hotdog-eating competition in New York, for one, seeing the male and female winners down 68 and 45 frankfurters respectively.