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Residents take scorching heat in stride: ‘It’s D.C.!’

Susan Balemaken, 3, tries to drink the water while cooling off at a splash pad at Turkey Thicket Recreation Center. (Amanda Andrade-Rhoades for The Washington Post)

An earlier version of this story misspelled Amelie Balemaken's name. This story has been corrected.

Amelie Balemaken wore a flowy dress and ballcap as she leaned against a giant orange tube and watched her delighted 3-year-old daughter collect water in a plastic bucket, dump it and start over.

“We’re so happy,” Balemaken said. “I didn’t know we were going to have so much fun.”

Turkey Thicket Recreation Center was one of about 17 spray parks that opened in D.C. Saturday after a few glitches, and a week earlier than normal as part of the citywide plan to adjust to scorching temperatures for late spring.

The region hit near-record temperatures in the low to mid-90s, the Capital Weather Gang reported after 4 p.m. on Saturday. The hotter-than-usual spring day left anyone with outdoor plans or small children to entertain scrambling for shade and activities. And the extreme weather posed a more serious challenge for the city’s homeless population.

In D.C., Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) activated the heat emergency plan through Sunday evening, including the opening of additional cooling centers throughout the city. Shelters remain open 24/7 as they have since the start of the pandemic.

Montgomery Soccer Inc., a youth league in the Montgomery County, Md., issued a heat advisory with strict guidelines for mandatory water breaks.

City officials across the region reminded residents to protect themselves and others from the heat by staying indoors or in the shade when possible, checking on elderly neighbors, drinking plenty of liquids and wearing hats and sunscreen.

Lisa Starghill had those bases covered Saturday as she set up the pavilion at Turkey Thicket for a cookout for her daughter’s college graduation. They already had lots of RSVPs, but she suspected the spray park would entice more friends and family with kids to brave the heat.

“It’s summer! It’s D.C! I’m just so happy it didn’t rain. Sometimes you have to put aside the heat and say, ‘It’s worth it,’” said Starghill who hung a congratulatory banner and wore a T-shirt with her daughter Christian Jasmine’s photograph.

She and her sister, Angel Johnson, grew up and still live nearby and were eager to celebrate their neighborhood, as well.

The Rose family had planned to pick strawberries Saturday and then considered gardening, but the weather forecast pointed to only one option — a spray park.

Alexis Rose doled out snacks to Elliot, 3, and Remy, almost 1, and recalled a dismal summer 2020, when the early days of the pandemic, pre-vaccine, meant spray parks and pools were off limits.

“We finally get a chance to take the kids to a splash park,” her husband, David Rose said.

Not everyone in D.C. was so lucky.

About an hour after opening time, some parks were still dry, prompting the city Department of Parks and Recreation to tweet, “We are working with our maintenance partner and have dispatched tech to our splash parks that have not turned on. We will get them up and running ASAP.”

Parks came to life throughout the day and the agency tweeted photos to prove it.

“This was actually a good dry run because they all open next week,” parks department spokesman Michael Tucker said, no pun intended. “They’re up and running, it was just a little bumpy at first.”

Summer kicks off for real Friday when Bowser plans to jump into Upshur Pool to launch D.C.’s summer pool season, he said.

Kayla Baum and Sierra Salvatierra, who are new to the city, were among about 20 people who lined up at a Rita’s Ice for a cold treat. They still went for a morning hike on Billy Goat Trail, but planned to spend the rest of the day indoors.

“Nothing feels right about being moist all the time,” Salvatierra said.

Although the searing heat came earlier than expected, Balemaken, who is from Cameroon, said it didn’t bother her or her daughter, Susan, who sported pink-and-blue sunglasses.

“It’s very important for the well-being of the child to have fun. Kids are meant to be out having fun,” she said.

The spray park is free — a plus in tough pandemic times, she said — and the best way she could think of to spend her only weekend day off with Susan.

Besides, she said, by Monday the forecast calls for a high in the low to mid-70s.

That’s welcome news for the city’s street teams, who visit people experiencing homelessness daily, but amp up outreach efforts on extremely hot days.

This weekend they carted rolling bags of water and let people living outside know about the forecast. They talk to them about places to seek shelter and remind them transportation is available.

Separate shelters accommodate men and women, and families seeking emergency shelter can call 311 at any time, city officials say.

Heat can have serious consequences, especially this early in the season before people are acclimated to high temperatures.

High temperatures lead to more deaths in the District than any other weather-related events, including frigid winter temperatures and storms, said Christy Respress, executive director of Pathways to Housing DC, a nonprofit that provides permanent housing for people experiencing homelessness.

“It’s not something that people necessarily think about,” she said. “But if you are someone who has a place to live, you can also go in and have a place to cool off.”

Libraries provide a respite from scorching temperatures, but it can be challenging for people to find places to that are comfortable and welcoming.

Some people experiencing homelessness also have complex medical conditions that put them at higher risk for heat stroke, and may be taking medications or coping with substance abuse issues that put them at greater risk for dehydration, she said.

When very hot, the number-one recommendation is to say indoors “which if you experience homelessness is not an option,” Repress said.

Cooling centers provide a place to soak up the air conditioning, have a snack and water, charge a phone, and use the bathroom, she said, — “like all of us want on a hot day.”