Heat, Humidity and Foul Air Smother Area

Madison Umberger, 10 months, held by Lillie Umberger, revels in a water mister at the zoo.
Madison Umberger, 10 months, held by Lillie Umberger, revels in a water mister at the zoo. (By Lois Raimondo -- The Washington Post)
By Sue Anne Pressley Montes and Jennifer Lenhart
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, July 19, 2006

On what seemed to be the steamiest, rottenest day of the summer so far, when the temperature reached a withering 97 degrees and air pollution rose to unhealthy levels, Washington area residents gamely tried to cope with fewer activities.

The region's first Code Red day since 2004 sent some people to area bus stops as they heeded the official request to avoid driving so as not to add to the pollution. Code Red days are declared by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments when the air quality is so poor that it can adversely affect people with heart and breathing ailments.

At least three people in Maryland have died of heat-related causes, according to the Maryland Department of Health. In Calvert County, a 54-year-old man was found dead Friday in his home, of heart disease complicated by hyperthermia, a spokesman said. In Prince George's County on Sunday, a woman found her 73-year-old husband dead in his car at a shopping center. In Carroll County, Md., a 60-year-old man also died Sunday, but further details were not available. Several area hospitals yesterday also reported one or two cases of heat-related problems.

Since the weekend, an oppressive heat wave has gripped much of the nation with temperatures in the 90s, and heat indexes often made it feel like it exceeded 100 degrees in places. At Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport, the temperature hit 99 degrees. The same figure was recorded at Richmond's airport, tying an 18-year-old record.

Across the country, people and governments took steps to cope. In Pennsylvania, summer school classes were dismissed early, and swimming pool hours were extended. New York City dimmed the lights in many government buildings to conserve electricity. In California, the United Farm Workers union started running radio ads advising farmworkers that they have the right to drinking water, shade and rests.

In the Washington area, the scorching heat burdened air-conditioning systems and put near-record demands on utilities. The District Court building in Silver Spring closed at noon yesterday after the temperature inside rose to 85 degrees. According to the Maryland Department of General Services, a power failure in Silver Spring on Monday night led to a problem with the electrical supply to the building. It will reopen today.

Metro conserved power, slowing trains and spacing them apart during the evening rush. Instead of running at about 55 mph aboveground, trains were directed to operate at 45 mph, a Metro spokeswoman said.

Trains were dispatched farther apart on the Blue, Orange and Red lines. On the Red Line, for example, trains were running every four minutes in the downtown core instead of the usual 2.5 minutes.

Metro expects to operate normal rush-hour service this morning.

Relief from the heat and its consequences is on the horizon.

A cold front moving through the region overnight, bringing showers and thunderstorms, was expected to result in cooler, less humid conditions through the weekend. By 5 p.m., a first storm, accompanied by hail, had hit Prince George's. By 11 p.m., the temperature in Washington was 78 degrees, 19 degrees less than in the afternoon.

Hailstones fell in Frederick County and Palmer Park, and there was wind damage in Landover. Wind gusted at 58 mph during a thunderstorm near Hagerstown, Md.

Lights went out. At various times, more than 14,000 houses lost power, including 4,000 in Anne Arundel County, 3,600 in Montgomery County and, as of early this morning, 3,100 in Prince George's.

But even promises of relief needed to be qualified. "Of course, 'cooler' in this case just means the high temperature will be back to where it's normal," in the upper 80s, said Calvin Meadows of the National Weather Service. Compared with yesterday's 105-degree heat index (a gauge of heat and humidity combined), that seemed delightful.

Sue Nease, of Waldorf, already deemed herself lucky -- her office is air-conditioned. When she had to venture out at lunchtime, however, her outlook quickly changed. Worst was sliding into her car, which had been hours in the broiling sun. "Like an oven," she said.

For people working outside, though, there was no worst part of the day -- it was bad all day long.

"It's soaking-wet hot," said Katia Mahler, who manages inventory at an auto mechanic shop in White Plains. "I go over to the water faucet and put my head underneath it."

At a big-box store on Rockville Pike, Sahba Sizdahkhani and his friend Natasha Farzanehpour tapped the amphibian cages, vainly trying to rouse snakes and lizards from their midday torpor.

"We're actually not here to buy one," said Sizdahkhani, a jazz drummer from Potomac. "We just got sick of spending so much time indoors."

"It's been most of the day, you know," added Farzanehpour, a pianist from McLean. "For days."

The heat let some people shed a bit of dignity. An ice cream truck prowled K Street NW, tempting office workers with its cheery jangle. The driver, Jorge Azuda, said he usually patrols the suburbs in summer, but on such hot days, he is drawn downtown. Many business people lose inhibitions about looking childish when it's so hot, he said.

"Maybe they're afraid they'll drip ice cream on their tie," Azuda said. "But today, they are burning, so it's okay to risk it."

Staff writers Ruben Castaneda, Megan Greenwell, Theola Labbé, Ann E. Marimow, Shearon Roberts, Philip Rucker, Leef Smith, Lena H. Sun, Avis Thomas-Lester, Daniel de Vise, Martin Weil and Dan Zak contributed to this report.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company