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D.C. area residents' nerves hit boiling point on third straight day of searing heat

By Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 8, 2010; A01

The capital of Wednesday's weather misery, the crossroads of heat and stink and dust, might well have been the bus shelter on the southwestern corner of 14th and U streets in Northwest Washington.

There, about noon, with the temperature at 99, the intersection reeking of cooking grease spilled from a trash truck and street sweepers raising clouds of dust, a Metrobus pulled up with its destination sign reading: "Not in service."

At this, Monica Bowles lost it. "It's ridiculous," she shouted over the noise of the bus engine. "It's driving people crazy . . . then you jack the prices up on these buses. And then we sit out here in the heat and suffer."

Bowles, of Columbia Heights, spoke for many in the Washington region Wednesday who had just about had it with the blistering weather of recent days and its attendant torments.

On the third consecutive day of searing heat that stretched from North Carolina to Massachusetts, Washington area temperature records fell again, a heat-related death was reported in Baltimore and utilities begged consumers to cut back on electricity use.

And with the ground parched and dusty and many suburban lawns brown and dry, forecasters said drought loomed if the area doesn't get some rain soon.

Sections of the District and Southern Maryland are in moderate drought conditions, said Dan Stillman of washingtonpost.com's Capital Weather Gang.

There is some prospect of showers, starting Thursday, Stillman said, and more so with a front that is expected to move through the area Friday into Saturday.

But the highs for Thursday are forecast to be in the mid-90s, and evidence of the heat's effects abounded across the region Wednesday.

Authorities in Prince George's County said they had taken 28 people to area hospitals over the past five days for heat-related illnesses. Maryland health officials said a Baltimore resident died this week because of the heat. Hot weather has contributed to eight Maryland deaths this season, including three in the past two weeks, authorities said.

The District has had one heat death this season, and Virginia had three late last month, officials said.

In Annapolis, the U.S. Naval Academy reported that four midshipmen who had just completed an obstacle course required medical attention for heat exhaustion, the Associated Press reported.

Temperature records were broken at Reagan National and Baltimore-Washington International Marshall airports. National's record was broken at 1:36 p.m. when the mercury hit 102. The previous record for the day was 99, set in 1991. BWI's record high was broken at 1:46 p.m., at 101. The previous record of 99 was set in 1993. Dulles International Airport matched its record for the day, tying the mark of 101 set in 1988.

The heat index, the combination of heat and humidity, produced values across the Washington area of 105, the National Weather Service said.

Poor air quality also continued, and the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments issued a code orange air-quality alert for Thursday for the region. A code orange means that air pollution might be harmful for children, people with heart or lung ailments, and the elderly.

Metro took some of its cars out of service to fix air-conditioning units after getting reports of cars with no air -- reports that continued Wednesday night -- and temperatures reaching 100 degrees in some cars.

In Potomac, a 24-inch water main burst Wednesday afternoon, sending a blast of water soaring above trees and power lines for hours. It was Rockville's main line from its water treatment plant, and city officials had to tap into the pipes of the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission to try to quench the thirst of Rockville residents.

"We don't see any property damage right now," said Craig Simoneau, Rockville's director of public works, as the water streamed down from South Glen Road and Deep Glen Drive.

Electrical companies, meanwhile, kept a close eye on energy use.

Wednesday evening, Pepco reported two outages affecting about 1,500 customers in Chevy Chase, Md., and the Chevy Chase neighborhood in the District. A spokesman said it was not clear whether the trouble was related to the heat.

The utility also said it was in touch with PJM Interconnection to monitor how the regional power grid was faring. The load Tuesday reached almost 6,768 megawatts, not far from the all-time peak of 6,947 megawatts reached in August 2006.

The Northern Virginia Electric Cooperative asked its 144,000 customers to reduce power consumption at work and home between 2 and 8 p.m., and Pepco asked customers to keep home thermostats at 78 to help reduce demand.

The height of the heat aggravation seemed to come after what was thought to be used cooking grease spilled from a refuse truck along U Street.

The large spill temporarily closed the area around 14th and U streets and left a blocks-long slick that smelled like a combination of rancid paint and the inside of an old boot.

Cleanup crews dumped sand at the scene, which was ground into dust by passing cars.

"It sure is a mess," said Bowles, who was waiting for a 96 bus. "I think it's a mess that they tear up all these streets. Every time you turn around on the hottest days out here, you got the buses saying 'not in service.' We're on a high-heat weather advisory. Shouldn't none of these buses say 'not in service.' "

Staff writers Lori Aratani, Michael Laris, Stephanie Lee, Mike McPhate, Ed O'Keefe, Sonja Ryst, Robert Thomson and Katherine Shaver contributed to this report.

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