A Hot Spell's Withering Heights
Power Failed, Buses Broke and Schools Closed as Heat Set a Record
By Nancy Trejos
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 3, 2004; Page B01
As the days of 90-plus temperatures melted one into the next, the summer of John Murphy's discontent only got worse.
Washingtonians with air conditioning were cranking it ever higher, blowing fuses and transformers. That meant long hours on the overhead power lines for Murphy's Pepco crew members, broiling in the protective rubber gloves and the vests that covered most of their torsos.
"The workers suffered unmercifully that summer," said Murphy, now 57 and a Pepco manager of field services. "It wasn't like they could work a while and sit in the air conditioning and cool off. The best they could do was go to the shade. But even the shade was hot."
There may have been hotter summers than the one residents endured in 1980, but not since the National Weather Service began keeping track of temperatures in 1871. The average of the daily high and low temperatures through June, July and August was 80 degrees, a relatively tame number that obscures a far more miserable meteorological picture. For a 21-day stretch that ended Aug. 14, the temperature was 90 or above. From May through September, there were 67 days of 90-plus temperatures, according to Weather Service records.
That included six days over 100 degrees, two more than in all of the 1960s and 1970s, said Keith Allen, supervisor of weather operations for Verizon Communications.
"Records were meant to be broken, and they were shattered that summer," Allen said.
The extreme heat led to suspicions that something was wrong with the thermometers on the runway at what was then National Airport. Officials checked them to quiet the doubters and found nothing amiss. The problem wasn't in the instruments but in the jet stream, which stayed in Canada for most of the summer, keeping cool air away. At the same time a "Bermuda High," a high-pressure system bringing heat and humidity, moved farther west into the United States. A lack of rain made the Washington region, a place no stranger to heat and humidity, even more uncomfortable.
The scorching temperatures across the country didn't help the national mood. Americans were held hostage in Iran. Unemployment and inflation soared. An energy crisis caused gas shortages and long lines at the pump. Americans didn't even have the Olympics to look forward to, as President Jimmy Carter ordered a boycott of the games, held in the Soviet Union.
On some of the worst days, summer school sessions were canceled, Metro buses overheated, and trains ran with fewer cars because of air-conditioning malfunctions. Municipal and federal employees left work early when their offices got too hot. Elderly public housing residents protested to D.C. Mayor Marion Barry about the lack of air conditioning. So many hydrants were opened by those in pursuit of cool water that the city had to dispatch employees to guard them.
Area hospitals reported more patients complaining of nausea, headaches and respiratory ailments, typical symptoms of heat fatigue. Four deaths in Maryland, three in the District and six in Virginia were attributed to the heat.
Two of those were runners competing in a 10-mile race in Herndon. They collapsed as they pounded the pavement on shadeless roads in the morning sun. Road races, as they are called, were relatively new at the time, and changed forever in the Washington area after that summer, said Ed Ayres, who covered the Herndon race that year for Running Times magazine. They now start very early in the morning or in the evening to avoid the hottest hours of the day and take place on shaded courses, he said.
"We were still on the steep part of the learning curve about understanding environmental risks, and people learn from tragedy," said Ayres, 62. "Since 1980, the people who manage road races have been far more careful and attentive about environmental risks."
The heat posed a major challenge to the region's fire departments. In Prince George's County, paramedics worked overtime responding to calls, particularly from senior citizens who suffered from heat-related illnesses, said M.H. Jim Estepp, chief of the fire department from 1978 to 1991. Firefighters fought heat exhaustion along with the fires. Radio communications broke down several times, leaving firefighters unable to call for backup in some instances, Estepp said.
"I don't remember it as having been a fun period," Estepp said. "This is a tough business to begin with."
It got so hot that Estepp suspended the firefighters' daily exercise routines. In a huge departure for the tradition-bound service, he also let them shed their uniforms and walk around the station in T-shirts.
"Back in '79, '80, that was a big thing," Estepp said. "We spent a lot of time pondering that particular decision."
For Bill Bentley, the heat wave meant brisk sales at the D.C.-based Beverly Ice Co., which he managed at the time.
Bentley and his crew worked 16- to 20-hour days, making 120 tons of ice every 24 hours -- an extraordinary load then. To keep up with demand, they imported an additional 20 to 40 tons from companies in Georgia and Florida that had ice to spare. And when they arrived at 7-Elevens and gas stations to make deliveries, they were greeted outside by desperate customers.
"We never could catch up, even with 120 tons," said Bentley, a 55-year-old D.C. resident. "It was truly crazy."
Those who could fled the city for the beach or mountains. For those left behind, not even a swimming pool provided much of a respite, said Bill Bullough, 59, who ran Montgomery County's public pools as aquatics director then. It was so hot that the water didn't stay cool enough to attract loads of swimmers, he said.
"Sometimes you get a drop in attendance when it's too dang hot and the water is not a relief," he said.
Some people didn't mind the heat so much. In fact, they loved it.
"I was following the weather every single day," said Verizon's Allen, 62. "I was absolutely mesmerized by what was going on."
What made the summer of 1980 so special, he said, wasn't just the heat itself but how long it lasted. Temperatures usually cool off in September, but not that year. On Sept. 1, Labor Day, the mercury reached 99 degrees, he said. The following day: 101.
"There was no break in it. It was relentless," he said.
Howard Phoebus, a 50-year-old real estate broker living in Beltsville, chronicled that summer in the weather diary he has kept since the mid-1960s. Thirteen and a half handwritten pages, front and back, detail hot spells, blizzards, tornados and more. Only important weather moments make it into his diary, he said.
"I don't throw stuff in here. It's really for extreme events," he said.
The summer of 1980 made the cut, he said, because it "was really the granddaddy of them all."
© 2004 The Washington Post Company