The Sudden Scorch of Summer

A roller-blader cruises by despite the 90-degree temperatures in Washington, D.C. on Tuesday. (Bill O'leary - The Washington Post)
By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Window units roared to life, sending a familiar trickle of condensation onto Washington area sidewalks yesterday as temperatures pushed well into the 90s for the first time this year.

In Anne Arundel and Howard counties, however, air-conditioning systems failed to start, closing a handful of schools. Overheated homeowners filed into hardware stores in search of working air conditioners and fans. Steering wheels burned to the touch. Shaded parking lots at the malls became a precious commodity.

The sudden onset of midsummer weather caught much of the region off guard. Just a week ago, on May 23, the high temperature at Reagan National Airport was 68, with a low of 46.

It was still May. But it felt like July to Ron Davis as he pushed an ungainly Xerox copier along a brick sidewalk in Annapolis.

"We've been in an air-conditioned truck," the repairman said. "The minute you get out, you can feel it."

Temperatures rose by a few degrees each day over the Memorial Day weekend and peaked yesterday, with the high reaching 95 at the area's three major airports, tying a record for the date at Dulles International. Power companies reported outages: At various times, they included about 15,000 Dominion Virginia Power customers, mostly in Prince William County, as well as 5,000 Pepco customers in Montgomery County and 422 Baltimore Gas & Electric Co. customers mostly in Anne Arundel and Harford counties.

A large high-pressure system has lingered over the mid-Atlantic, along with a pattern of sinking air that has brought unseasonable warmth, because "sinking air tends to warm as it descends," said Steve Rogowski, a National Weather Service meteorologist. The region should cool into the 80s today, Rogowski said, as the hot air moves off to the northeast and clouds spread across the area.

In Gambrills, Jen Eliot spent yesterday morning inside Arundel High School, a campus undergoing renovation and without air conditioning. Indoor temperatures reached the high 80s. Students were dismissed two hours early.

"It was miserable," said Jen, a sophomore. "You were practically swimming in it. And then you could smell it. It just stinks when it gets hot, especially when you go down to the gym."

At least three other public schools in the area -- Chesapeake Bay Middle and Van Bokkelen Elementary in Anne Arundel and Glenelg High in Howard -- closed because of broken air conditioners. Some schools suspended outdoor activities. Prince George's officials sent a memo to the county's 199 schools advising staff to limit strenuous outdoor activity.

Air conditioning wasn't always an issue in the schools. Until the late 1960s, schools relied almost entirely on open windows and fans. As recently as three years ago, dozens of older schools in the area made do without air conditioning. But central air became so common that school officials felt compelled to outfit older schools with wall units and close the air-conditioning "gap."

Today, virtually every school in the region has either central air or wall units. And when the A/C breaks down on a very hot day, it's customary to close the school.

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