Hot, hot, hot enough for you? D.C. region sweats out a triple-digit heat wave

By Rick Rojas and Phillip Lucas
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, July 7, 2010; B01

Temperatures in the region climbed into the triple digits Tuesday, continuing a heat wave that meteorologists say might just last through the summer.

The mercury reached as high as 102 degrees at Reagan National Airport as near-record temperatures spread across the Eastern Seaboard. The National Weather Service issued heat advisories from Washington to Boston.

Forecasters said they expect temperatures to be higher than usual through September, threatening residents susceptible to heat-related health issues and possibly placing considerable strain on the region's electrical grid.

"We are looking at above-normal temperatures through the summer," said Kevin Witt, a National Weather Service meteorologist. "I can't say we are expecting any more hundreds, but this is summer. If we have another area of high pressure move into the region . . . that might bring us more higher temperatures, if not record temperatures."

The high Tuesday missed the record by one degree. The high mark for July 6 was set in 1999, with a reading of 103 at Reagan National. The temperature has crossed the 100-degree mark six times in the past decade.

In Washington, weary pedestrians huffed and perspired as they shuffled along sizzling sidewalks, occasionally catching puffs of cool air as they passed open shop doors or Metro station entrances. Parks and sidewalk cafes were generally cleared of people, although a few folks stopped to dip their feet in fountains. Many tourists said they were opting for museums or simply staying in their hotel rooms.

Along with the heat warnings, the National Weather Service issued a Code Orange air-quality alert for the region, lasting through Thursday. The alert, for ozone pollution, is targeted at children, the elderly, and those suffering from heart disease or asthma and other lung diseases. Sensitive groups are urged to minimize strenuous activity outdoors.

The searing temperatures are expected to endure through the week, with a high nearing 100 on Wednesday. Showers and thunderstorms are forecast for Thursday, but "they're not going to do anything as far as giving us relief that day," said Andy Woodcock, a National Weather Service meteorologist.

This week's heat comes on the heels of a stretch in June that broke two daily records. The 100 degrees measured June 24 and the 99 on June 27 contributed to making June "above normal for the entire month," Witt said.

The continued heat and dramatically increased demand has power companies asking customers to conserve and keep from cranking thermostats down. Usage has increased by 55 percent in Northern Virginia compared with the average June, according to Dominion Virginia Power. At Baltimore Gas & Electric, Tuesday's peak usage was an estimated 6,900 megawatts -- not hitting the 7,198-megawatt record set in August 2006, but far higher than the normal 5,500 megawatts, said Linda Foy, a BG&E spokeswoman.

Although officials from area power suppliers say there have been no heat-related outages in the region, they warn that it takes conservation to keep from creating too heavy a burden on the electrical grid.

"We're just asking people to conserve: Leave the drapes closed, or not to use high-heat appliances," said Bob Hainey, a Pepco spokesman. He suggested leaving thermostats at 78 degrees.

There is additional concern about people without air conditioning, with extra precautions recommended for those most susceptible to heat exhaustion -- children and the elderly.

Emergency officials across the region said Tuesday that they have responded to calls for hyperthermia, but none appeared to be life-threatening. However, the heat has caused at least four deaths in the region since May, officials said. Three deaths were reported between June 18 and June 24 in Virginia, said state Department of Health spokesman Larry Hill. In the District, a man died in May from heat-related causes, according to the D.C. medical examiner's office.

The District opened four cooling centers Tuesday, but few residents took advantage during the day, said Cornell Chappelle, deputy director for community partnerships at the D.C. Department of Health and manager of a cooling center on Rhode Island Avenue NE. The city was planning to open eight homeless shelters overnight for those seeking to avoid the heat.

City pools, libraries and senior wellness centers will also have extended hours through Thursday, officials said.

Beth Finley, who has lived in the Washington area for 35 years, sat down at McPherson Square to "play Sudoku and clear my mind," she said. But the heat got to her, she said, and she had to cut short her afternoon diversion. "After a couple minutes, you have to go get some water," Finley said.

Eric Johnson of Mount Pleasant doesn't have an air conditioner, and said he has to cope with ceiling fans until he gets "$20,000 to have air conditioning put in."

Johnson, who was raised in the District, said that Tuesday's heat was among the worst he could recall, but that he knows it's yet another bout of odd weather that comes and goes in the region.

"The snow eventually went away," Johnson said, "and the heat will, too."

Staff writer Lena H. Sun contributed to this report.

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