D.C. heat wave flirts with all-time high

July 7, 2012

A heat wave that barreled into the Washington region more than a week ago finally crested Saturday, shattering records as residents took extraordinary measures to cope with a scorching sun.

The day started off hot — 82 degrees at 6 a.m. — and grew only more torrid, flirting with the District’s all-time record of 106 degrees. Indeed, the mercury touched 106 for one minute before slipping back to 105, failing to sustain the three-minute span required to establish a record, according to the National Weather Service.

Despite falling short of the historic high, the nation’s capital notched at least three heat-related marks Saturday: It was the hottest day of the year and easily topped the previous high for July 7: 102 degrees. Saturday was also a record 10th-straight day with a high temperature above 95 degrees.

“It has been truly exceptional,” said Chris Vaccaro, a spokesman for the National Weather Service, which records Washington’s official temperature at Reagan National Airport. “We made a quick run for the triple-digit mark: The temperature hit 100 degrees just before noon.”

The Washington Post’s Capital Weather Gang offered a smidgen of solace for those praying for relief. On Sunday, the area’s humid highs are expected to range between 95 and 100 degrees before an emerging cold front sets off afternoon storms that could be severe. By Monday, the region will be seeing temperatures in the normal range of the mid-to-upper 80s.

On Saturday, area officials continued measures begun early in the heat wave, opening libraries and schools as cooling shelters and going door-to-door in some places to check on residents.

Meanwhile, utility crews struggled to restore power to several thousand customers, many without electricity since exceptionally violent thunderstorms swept through the region June 29. Although hospitals and local officials did not report many heat-related illnesses, Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) said his state recorded the 10th heat-related death reported since the storm, bringing the region’s toll to 13.

As the temperature surged, Washington area residents adapted, escaped or simply ignored the ovenlike air. Through it all, people kept an eye on computers, smartphones and backyard thermometers, measuring the day’s progress in degrees as much as hours or minutes.

It all began before sunrise.

5 a.m., 82 degrees

Sonja Harrison didn’t waste any time getting her Land Rover inspected. She was in line before dawn at the D.C. Department of Motor Vehicles inspection station in Southwest Washington, which opened and closed an hour early — at 5 a.m. and 1 p.m. — in an effort to protect employees and customers from the looming heat.

“I wanted to avoid the lines and save the air conditioning in my car and my gas bill,” said Harrison, 42. “I decided to get up early this morning. I thought it was worth it.”

10 a.m., 92 degrees

The moment the mall opened, Bob Lund was there.

But he wasn’t visiting Tysons Corner for a door-busting sale. He ambled through the glass doors and into the mall’s hermetically sealed and perfectly cool environment. Then the Arlington County resident plopped himself on a leather chair outside the Barnes & Noble bookstore and whipped out a mystery novel.

“Over the past few days, getting one of the nice seats here has been like finding gold,” said Lund, 59.

Lund’s home lost power after the June 29 storm, and he began visiting this comfortable spot every morning. When power was restored Monday, he couldn’t kick the habit. He was devouring his third book of the week: “Right From the Gecko” by Cynthia Baxter, a mystery set in Maui.

“Hawaii,” Lund mused. “It’s probably a lot cooler there than it is outside.”

11 a.m., 99 degrees

For more than a week, Pat Herring, 58, her daughter and three grandchildren had braved the heat in her small D.C. apartment in the 1400 block of Morris Road SE. But Saturday’s skyrocketing temperatures were too much to bear. Her window-mounted air conditioner couldn’t keep pace with the rising mercury, so Herring and her family piled into a minivan for the ride to her mother’s much cooler home in Clinton.

“I just sit still and drink lots of water, but the older I get, the hotter it seems to be getting,” Herring said.

She finds herself reading the Bible more and asking God to turn the world into paradise.

“I’m praying for 75 degrees and no humidity,” she said, wiping sweat from her forehead and quickly hopping in the car. “I’m sweating like a pig, if pigs could sweat.”

Noon, 100 degrees

Rob Netsch works in what should be one of the cooler places on Earth: an ice plant. But things were pretty warm in there, too, on the hottest day of the year.

Netsch, general manager of Apollo Ice in Hyattsville, was struggling to keep up with demand brought on by sweltering weather and lingering power outages. “I’ve been here every morning at 5 a.m.,” Netsch said. Last Saturday night, he slept in his office.

The phone rang — a convenience store owner was checking on his delivery. Netsch looked at a computer monitor on his desk. “He should be there soon,” he said wearily.

1 p.m., 102 degrees

“What the hell, y’all wimps?” Charles Bowling asked.

As Washington cooked, the conversation in the far corner of the farmers market in La Plata was about air conditioning. Bowling, a third-generation Southern Maryland farmer, doesn’t have AC and doesn’t want it. Spare him your incredulity.

“I work in the field all day; I don’t need no air conditioning,” Bowling, 73, said while restocking watermelon.

In the parking lot behind the Charles County Circuit Court, it was corn-cookingly hot.

Customers were wilting as they inspected beans, melons, tomatoes, onions and squash at the tented C.H. Bowling Produce tables.

Bowling was sweating through his salt-crusted ball cap.

“I got it made today,” he said with a twang. “I’m laying in the shade here; ain’t no shade in the fields.”

About the same time, Carter Groome was loading up the family car in front of his Northwest Washington home — again.

Since the violent June 29 thunderstorm, his family had spent nearly a week without electricity and three nights in a hotel, where his daughter achieved a personal milestone: She crawled for the first time.

They thought they had endured the worst. Then, early Saturday, the water main on his street ruptured.

At first, Groome and other residents watched water pour down the street. Then they quickly filled up bathtubs and sinks before the pressure diminished.

But when it became clear that the problem wasn’t going to be fixed anytime soon, the family decided to flee in their Acura sport-utility vehicle to check on Groome’s mother in Gaithersburg. It was hardly a hotel, especially since his mother’s house had been badly damaged in the storm when a tree smashed through the roof and nearly hit her bed.

“We’re going on another adventure,” Groome’s wife, Karen, said to Hannah, the couple’s 8-month-old, as she strapped the baby in her car seat.

2 p.m., 103 degrees

Across town, in Southeast Washington, John “Peterbug” Matthews was selling red, purple and blue snow cones. But he was also people-watching and marveling at how the heat created a syruplike atmosphere that seemed to slow everyone down around him.

“It’s hot. But it’s been hotter,” said Matthews, who said he was a “little bit over 60.”

When he was young, he said, “the only place that had air conditioning was in the department stores downtown.”

“When it was hot, we made our way with this thing,” he said, turning and patting a spinning fan in his shop, the Peterbug Shoe Repair Academy in the 1300 block of 13th Street SE. He has central air in the shop but doesn’t turn it on.

“It’s artificial,” he said of air conditioning. “It’s not good for the bones.”

This kind of heat is no big deal, said Sandra Owens, 62, who is sitting cool and pretty in the shop. “It’s normal to me. When we were growing up, we had no air. We just dealt with it. That’s all you could do. We used to have horse troughs on the street. If you got too hot, you’d take a dip in a trough.”

When people complain about the heat, Matthews tells them that things could be worse. “Sometimes folks don’t want to hear simple things,” he said. “They complain, ‘Oh, my air conditioning is not working. We are going to die.’ You ain’t going to die!

“You just need to calm down and drink lots of water or go to the store and buy two lemons for 50 cents and make yourself some lemonade. And put a little sugar in it or honey. Another thing you can do is get some peppermint oil and rub it across your neck and forehead. It will cool your body down.”

He learned that from “old folks. You have to listen to old folks,” Matthews said, sitting back in his chair, surrounded by shoes. He took a “cooling towel” and wrapped it around his neck. “Just calm yourself down.”

3 to 4 p.m., 105 degrees

The fans at the Nationals game were coping in a way not exactly recommended by experts: drinking beer. Customers at the Bullpen, the beer garden across the street from Nationals Park, huddled under a white tent to avoid the sun-drenched concrete that covers most of the block-long property.

Rob Stratton and Sean Day sat sipping Landmark Lager at a picnic table they had staked out, waiting to head into the center field seats in the ballpark.

“We are drinking cold beers and enjoying the shade. It’s a lot more comfortable under the tent than out there,” said Stratton, nodding toward the deserted concrete.

Ten miles to the north, immigrants from supposedly warmer climes relaxed as their children played in the colorful mosaic fountain in downtown Silver Spring.

“In my country, you know what the weather’s going to be,” said Ninette Kaneza, 37, a native of Burundi who moved to Silver Spring 14 years ago. She had brought her 5-year-old daughter to the fountain.

“In this country,” Kaneza said, “you never know: It gets hot, it rains and then the storm. So much surprises.”

Watching her two young children splash in the fountain, Fatima Domigpe, 39, said her native Philippines is always hot. People are “pretty much broke,” she said, and don’t have air conditioning. But her homeland is a cool paradise compared with here, she said.

“No, no,” she gasped, flapping a fan in front of her face. “It’s not like this, oh, my goodness.”

Susan Svrluga is a Virginia rover for the Washington Post, covering anything and everything that’s happening in the Commonwealth.
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