Record-breaking heat wilts National Book Festival crowd

By Martin Weil
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 25, 2010; 10:58 PM

In tents on the Mall, people sat on folding chairs, swinging paper fans back and forth, trying to stir a breeze and dispel the heat, which matched a record.

With so many weather records matched or broken already this year, one more might not seem like a big thing. But the one matched Saturday seemed to be a kind of Mount Everest of meteorology, a mark that few believed could be attained, despite the fierce heat that persisted all summer and into September.

On Saturday, sunshine and air currents combined to help Washington's weather reach a kind of summit. It was the 67th day of 2010 in which the temperature reached 90 degrees or higher. Only once before had the thermometer at Reagan National Airport recorded so many days that were so hot.

That was 1980, a year of such sizzle and swelter that it has become memorable to those who experienced it, and created widespread doubt that its misery could ever be matched.

On Saturday afternoon, the temperature not only reached 90 for the 67th time this year, it soared well above that figure, leaving no doubt that it was hot.

It was 93 at the airport.

People noticed. Speakers at the National Book Festival made note of the conditions under which the annual celebration was held. Hot conditions.

One speaker, who referred to the overheated summers of long ago that sent the families of the poor to the rooftops of New York City tenements to try to sleep, likened those summertime conditions to those of Saturday in Washington in September.

An author of a book about publishing titan Joseph Pulitzer tied his talk to Saturday's conditions by reminding listeners that the harsh conditions of which Pulitzer encouraged his reporters to write, were like those being experienced on the Mall.

Another author, Stacy Schiff, expressed her appreciation for the audience members who were enduring the intense heat.

And the wooden-handled paper fans swung back and forth.

The 93 degrees at Reagan on Saturday did not set a record there for the date. But the same high temperature was recorded Saturday at Dulles International Airport and did set a record at that location. The old record at Dulles was 92 degrees, set in 1970.

As the days passed and Washington continued on its approach to matching the mark of 67 very hot days, people's reactions varied.

Some began to hope that history would be made.

Noting that the 90-degree mark had been reached, one weather watcher said this in a comment on the Washington Post's Capital Weather Gang blog:

"That's awesome! It does feel like it's heating up, hope we can get up there. Hope it won't be 89F just as yesterday was 99F instead of 100F."

Others showed a pronounced lack of enthusiasm.

"Oh yay, congratulations," wrote one observer in a post on the same weather blog. "The 2010 summer trend of high electric bills, parched landscaping & grouchy, sticky people continues."

Posted another: "Nooooo . . . I don't want to break any more records!"

"This has been the most miserable summer I can remember and I did not appreciate the heat at the book fest," wrote one follower of the Capital Weather Gang blog, in a comment posted online.

The commenter added: "However, go big or go home. What are the chances of breaking the record?"

Who knows?

There was no indication Saturday night in the National Weather Service forecast that 90-degree temperatures were on Washington's weather horizon.

But after reaching 67 days of 90 degrees, who's to say that another such day will not come Washington's way?

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