What summer has done to the people of Washington isn't pretty.
On Aug. 9, 1896, with the temperature a sultry 97.4 degrees, heat killed six people. It would have killed seven, but when a cook at the old Emrich Hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue passed out in the hotel kitchen someone shoved him into an icebox. The cook cooled quickly and lived. That same day, many pedestrians, desperate for relief, lifted up their hats long enough to place small wet sponges on their heads. Those who couldn't find a sponge used wet cabbage leaves.
On Aug. 9, 1930 -- when the temperature was 102 and local churches were offering up prayers for rain and thousands of people were sleeping in the parks and drought was driving snakes out of swamps -- Mrs. Mary Ale stooped over in the basement of a house in Southeast Washington and turned on a gas burner. But before she could light it, she passed out from the heat. She was nearly asphyxiated before a neighbor found her and hauled her off to Casualty Hospital.
On July 17, 1980, with the temperature at 103 degrees and the city locked into its hottest summer on record, a bricklayer named David Thompson took a short break from work, climbed out of a suffocatingly hot stairwell on Seventh Street NW and said: "Me? I got five minutes to sit out here, then I got to climb back into hell."
The next day, down in Charlottesville, with the temperature at 102, a man shot his brother to death in an argument over turning off a bedroom air conditioner.
The skin of a human being, doctors say, works like a car radiator. It is supposed to dissipate heat and keep a person running cool. But in Washington in the summer, with spongy, windless, 90-degree air, the radiator often doesn't work.
"What you end up doing essentially is cooking your internal organs," says Dr. Ronald G. Crystal, chief of the pulmonary branch at the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute of the National Institutes of Health.
When you get hot, you sweat. But sweat itself does not make you cool; it is the process of sweat evaporating, says Crystal, an expert on heat stroke. As humidity climbs, sweat evaporates more slowly. The body cannot cool itself and body temperature rises. When it reaches 105 or 106 degrees, Crystal says, people die.
Before heat and humidity lethally cook one's innards, however, other maladies crop up. In ascending order of nastiness, these include: confusion, dizziness, nausea, stumbling, cramps, headache, diarrhes, tremors, palpitations, brain seizures, psychosis and heart failure.
Besides physical suffering, there is considerable evidence that hot weather makes people irritable, if not violent or crazy. District of Columbia crime statistics show that murder, rape and assault increase in the hot summer months.
"Intense heat is a stresser," says Dr. Harold I. Eist, a psychiatrist and past president of the Washington Psychiatric Society. "Everybody is more on edge when there is an extended hot spell. People under major tranquilizers are at greater risk. Heat makes any stress condition worse."
Elizabeth Waters had not imagined until her first summer in Washington how easy it was to slip out of the world. By August there was no visible sun, only the dense gray airless afternoons thick with the kind of heat that left her out of breath. After work, she would undress, lie down on the terrible velvet couch in the living room in front of a small fan at high speed. Sometimes she wrapped herself in a wet sheet, her brain gone soft as curtains, unable to imagine even the pleasure of lemonade.
From Dreaming of Heroes, a forthcoming novel by Susan Shreve.
Human radiator failures have occurred in Washington nearly every July and August since George Washington decided in 1790 that a riverside swamp would be a nice place for the nation's capital.
The site that the first president picked for the capital combines three of the three ingredients needed for a ghastly summer living. Then, as now, Washington was hot, humid and the summer wind didn't blow very often or very hard. The city lies at the confluence of the Potomac and Anacostia rivers on a peninsula of low marshy land. Summer winds, when they blow at all, usually come up from the heat-soaked South.
The first generations of Washingtonians could not help but note these disadvantages, and, by and large, they hated the place.
During the first decade of the 19th century, when Washington was little more than a dismal bog, punctuated with a few unfinished white citadels of the federal government and overrun with frogs, garbage, sewage, foul odors and malarial mosquitoes, John Quincy Adams served as secretary of state under President Thomas Jefferson. An entry in Adam's diary hints at the sophistication of the summertime city:
"[My servant] killed a brownish snake two feet long, in the house, at the foot of the staircase. The heat of the weather almost unremitted, with myriads of fies, bugs and vermin of all filths, adds to the discomforts, if not to the anxieties of this occupation."
For nearly 70 years, until the Civil War, Washington was despised by many of the politicians forced to work in it. From 1797 to 1829, more senators quit than lost reelection bids. Members of the House of Representatives resigned at nearly twice the modern rate. The British foreign office classified Washington a "tropical station." There was constant agitation by the press and Congress to move the capital to a more civilized, accessible location.
"It is difficult to imagine a community which entertained a more unflattering, disdainful, indeed abhorrent image of itself," writes James Sterling Young in his book The Washington Community.
Washington, Young writes, was "virtually devoid of civic pride among its leading members, scorned as a place to live, deprecated for the rewards it offered, anathematized for its way of life; a community pervaded with mistrust one man of another, riven by animosities and dissension, its members never at peace with themselves or with each other and professing a deep aversion to the work they carried on there."
As one executive official summed it up in the early 19th century, Washington was "a hateful place."
Accordingly, when the hateful weather of July and August came round, everyone who could afford to leave left. The president and Congress led the evacuation, establishing a summer exodus tradition from Washington that air conditioning has bent but not broken.
The first major obstacle to the official summer abandonment of Washington was the Civil War. Some essential federal officials were forced by the war to stay in the city, and they didn't like it.
"The town is as dismal as a defaced tombstone," wrote John Hay, Lincoln's assistant private secretary on Aug. 7, 1863. "Everyone has gone to [the resorts]."
Heat bloated the days and impregnated the nights with a decadent restlessness... Each night dripped onto the following day, blurring the edges of the mornings, discoloring and spoiling any sense of freshness or renewal.
From The National Anthem, a Washington novel by by Barbara Raskin.
The feeling that Washington was too foul a place to live in during the summer helped dictate how the city grew.
In 1870, nearly all of the District's 132,000 people lived within two miles of the White House. But the construction of street railways allowed the middle class to escape to high ground in the summer, away from bugs and vermin and putrid smells.
They built summer homes in then-faraway places like Chevy Chase, Glen Echo, Seat Pleasant and Congress Heights. The developers of Chevy Chase built a lake to lure sweaty Washingtonians out for a swim and, perhaps, a new home.
A newspaper advertisement in May 1903, for a housing development called Cleveland Park, played to the fears of city dwellers:
"Cleveland Park... is as beautiful a spot and as free from the annoyances of the city as if it were in the heart of the Adirondacks. There is every blessing of fresh country air, plenty of elbow room, woods and field, peacefulness, coolness in summer..."
In Washington, until almost the turn of the century, there were compelling heat-related reasons to get out of town in the summer. City water had to be boiled before drinking. Bloated carcasses of assorted creatures were left to rot in excavation holes full of green stagnant water. Dysentery, yellow fever, small pox and malaria were common.
"The Potomac was a sewage disposal of the communities from Cumberland, Md., to Washington," wrote Dr. James A. Gannon Sr., a Washington surgeon. "The circumstance accounted for the high percentage of typhoid fever which was epidemic."
Gannon writes in the Records of the Columbia Historical Society that since the connection between mosquitoes and "Plasmodia malariae" had not yet been established, many Washingtonians blamed malaria on "the night air and the miasma."
"On pleasant summer evenings after dinner the diners would repair to the coolness of the garden...," Gannon writes. "The diners presented a tempting meal [for mosquitoes] during which the plasmodium was traded for the victim's blood."
One by one, Washington snuffed out the killing maladies of summer. Sewage systems and water systems were built, swamps were drained and mosquitoes sprayed. All that remained was the heat. That, too, was attacked with air conditioning, first in movie houses in the mid-1920s and at the White House in 1930. By the late 1940s, air conditioners were common in apartment buildings and houses throughout Washington.
On a radio somewhere a man was talking about the air quality index, photochemical mists; everyone was to stay inside and run the air conditioners... The sky was a sick, low-burning red screen. ..
From Take Me Back, a novel by Richard Bausch set in Northern Virginia.
In Washington, chokingly hot, sticky weather often feeds upon itself. Weather experts say this happens when a subtropical high pressure system recirculates the atmosphere in such a way that hot days beget even hotter days.
"Once a flow pattern gets established, it tends to stay that way. Southerly winds sustain the heat. There are few clouds. The sunshine beats down," says climatologist Landsberg.
Washington slogs through these heat waves nearly every summer. But in the 110 years since the weather service began keeping track of such things, there have been three particularly brutal summer assaults on Washington.
The first struck in early August 1918, one of the few pre-air-conditioning summers when official Washington was not shut down. World War I had jammed the capital with bureaucrats, soldiers, businessmen and hangers-on. The weather up until Aug. 5 had been relatively cool. Then, for five memorably awful days, Washington got as hot and as humid as it has been this century.
The temperature rose to 105.5 degrees on Aug. 6; two days later the humidity rose to record levels. The average maximum temperature for the five days was 99.6 degrees.
Heat virtually shut the city down. Fifty clerks collapsed one afternoon in a building housing the War and Navy departments. Two people died of heat stroke. Manufacture of ice cream was reduced 60 percent to ensure an adequate supply of ice. On the night before the heat wave hit, 57 bootleggers were arrested, a near-record. The next night, police arrested none.
A Washington Post editorial warned icemen -- who alone provided surcease from the heat -- up keep to their appointed rounds:
"The iceman who abandons his route because he has worked the requisite number of hours, leaving homes unserved, is a slacker, who should be taught his responsibility in an emphatic way. Man the ice wagons, at any cost of money and effort. Give an exemple of real American efficiency here in the National Capital."
The second major assault on Washington, hotter than the first, occurred in July 1930. The temperature rose to a record 105.6 degrees, and the average maximum temperature between July 18 and 22 was 101.2. That July had six 100-degree days, a record. (July in Washington is normally hotter than August. The average July temperature is 78.7 degrees; the average August temperature, 77.1 degrees.)
During the hot spell of 1930, 16 people died of heat-related illnesses. Thousands slept in city parks under guard of special details of park police. Eggs hatched in open-air markets. A Hagerstown man, apparently crazed by the heat, jumped, fully clothed, into the Potomac and drowned.
"Electric fans, ice water and cooling beverages did their part in apartments and homes in the general effort to keep cool, out none of these things proved magnificent successes," The Post reported.
At the White House, life was easier. A Post story said: "Employees of the White House worked all day and were glad of it: the new cooling plant, similar to those in movie palaces, kept the temperature of the Executive Mansion 20 degrees cooler than the street all day."
The last great ghastly summer in Washington occurred just two years ago. The summer of 1980 broke nearly every record for sustained heat. Since 1870 there has not been a hotter July or August. The average temperature for June, July and August was a record 80 degrees. For 21 days the temperature was 90 degrees or above.
There were at least six deaths attributed to the heat, but no mass migrations to the parks for sleep. There was little talk of ice men. Air conditioning had defanged summer. Most crises occurred when the air conditioning broke down on buses and in federal buildings. Bureaucrats grumbled that their offices were not as cool as their colleagues' across the hall. Air conditioners dripped cold water on subway seats; passengers who sat down in it sprang up squealing.
The storm broke over the house. Rain fell in dark diagonais across the summer lawn. An abrupt wind bent willow trees, tore sumac, shook elms. The storm's center was now so near that the flash of lightning and the sound of thunder almost coincided, ending darkness, shattering stillness... Suddenly with a shound like an ax splintering wood, blue lightning shattered the sky, setting teeth on edge, enveloping flesh in a vast tingling web.
From Washington D.C. by Gore Vidal.
About 29 times a year, Washington heat is beaten back by thunderstorms. The storms normally produce enough rain to water lawns and cool a hot summer day by several degrees. They are caused by collisions of moist hot air with a cooler weather front.
These routine local thunderstorms that blow themselves out in an hour or so pack an enormous wallop of energy. A normal-size Washington thunderstorm, which is about 12 miles high and eight miles across, weighs about 2 billion pounds, according to climatologist Louis J. Battan, a professor at the University of Arizona.
If that storm drops a quarter-inch of rain, it expends energy equivalent to that released by the 20-kiloton atomic bomb dropped over Nagasaki, Battan says.
While Washington has relatively benign thunderstorms, at least, in comparison to those common in the Midwest, the city has on occasion been devasted by electrical storms.
The worst of these, by far, exploded in Washington at 3 p.m. on Wednesday July 30, 1913. It dumped 2.02 inches of rain in less than 15 minutes. A 70-mile-an-hour wind ripped up the city.
The wind wrecked a three-story brick building at 7th and L Streets NW, killing two and injuring 19. It crashed through the windows of the Bureau of Printing and Engraving, scooping up $1,000 in $1 bills and blowing them across the Mall. It uprooted huge eims on the White House lawn and crashed them into the White House portico. President Woodrow Wilson was pushed away from windows shattered by hail.
"Washington's well-kept streets, with their wealth of trees, were littered with broken foliage, roofs, debris and dead birds, as if a playful giant had swished his club up and down the city," The Post reported.
The National Weather Service's prediction for this summer in Washington is that it will be slightly warmer than normal. But no one knows if there will be an extreme heat wave.
"We don't know about these extremes until they happen," says Donald L. Gilman, chief of the prediction branch in the climate analysis center of the weather service. "It's never been possible to make a forecast of how severe a heat wave will be."