Violent thunderstorms rolled across much of Central Maryland last night, ending another record-setting day of steamy weather with flooded streets, power failures, hundreds of lightning strikes and at least one serious fire.
Several hundred people were evacuated from the Ruck Towson Funeral Home at York Road and the Beltway after lightning struck the building's cupola about 7:15 p.m. and started a fire, said Michael J. Ruck, senior vice president of Ruck Funeral Homes.
The two-alarm fire interrupted four viewings for more than an hour, Mr. Ruck said. It took firefighters about 15 minutes to douse the blaze, which caused smoke and water damage to the second floor. Funeral home employees moved two caskets to the first floor to protect them from any damage, he said.
"The most important thing was that nobody was injured," Mr. Ruck said.
The lightning also struck a 65-foot oak tree behind the funeral home, stripping its bark while leaving it standing, he added.
Dozens of large trees in Towson, Randallstown, Pikesville and Lutherville were felled by lightning and strong winds, which gusted up to 50 mph in Owings Mills and 35 mph in northern Baltimore County, said Bill Miller, a forecaster for the National Weather Service at Baltimore-Washington International Airport.
Torrential rain flooded many streets, with up to 3 feet of water reported on U.S. 40 at the intersection of Joppa Farm Road in southeastern Harford County. Flooding forced the county Sheriff's Department to close stretches of Joppa Farm Road, Joppa Road and Mountain Road.
More than an inch of rain fell at Television Hill in Baltimore in about an hour, Mr. Miller said. About three-quarters of an inch fell at the airport.
The storms left 37,200 households and businesses in the Baltimore area without power for at least part of the evening, said Art Slusark, a spokesman for Baltimore Gas and Electric Co.
By midnight, all but 20,000 had their electricity restored.
In the wake of the storms, the temperature dropped to 76 at the Custom House downtown and 72 at the airport. But the relief was expected to be temporary.
The sweltering heat is predicted to return today, though clouds should prevent the temperature from topping 90 degrees, Mr. Miller said.
But cold air from the Dakotas and Great Lakes is on the way and should push the temperatures into the mid- to high 70s by tomorrow.
The cold front is welcome news for Baltimore-area school administrators, who angered some parents yesterday by dismissing classes one to two hours early because of the oppressive heat.
Baltimore schools shut down at 12:30 p.m. Public school systems in Anne Arundel and Harford counties closed two hours early, while Carroll and Baltimore counties dismissed one hour ahead of schedule.
Only in Howard County, where all schools are air-conditioned, did classrooms stay open.
"It's a disaster if you're a working, single parent," said Kim Durand, whose two children attend Roland Park Elementary School.
Ms. Durand, a paralegal in Harford County, was caught off guard when the city closed schools on Monday, and she had to scramble to find a neighbor to take care of them. She stayed home from work yesterday, knowing the city would close schools if the temperature reached 90 degrees by 11 a.m.
By that time, the temperature had already reached 94 at BWI and 95 at the Baltimore Custom House, at the corner of South Gay and Lombard streets.
At 2:30 p.m., the mercury at BWI hit 97, breaking the old record of 92 set in 1972. At 4:15 p.m., the thermometer in the city soared to 99 degrees, breaking the 1972 record of 93.
School administrators said yesterday's weather was worse than Monday's for students because it was the second day of the heat wave. Temperatures had a chance to build up inside schools, where windows are closed overnight for security reasons.
"It gets particularly uncomfortable at the top floors of multistory buildings, which most of our high schools are, and it doesn't cool off," said Richard E. Bavaria, a spokesman for the Baltimore County public schools. "The environment is just not good for learning."
But he and other officials received a flood of calls yesterday from parents on both sides of the fence. Some opposed keeping the schools open in the hot weather; others were irate that their children were being sent home -- in some cases without transportation or supervision once they got there.
Douglas J. Neilson, a spokesman for the city schools, said his office received at least 70 complaints yesterday. "People wanted to know, 'Will the school system pay for my baby sitter?' "
In the metropolitan Baltimore area, only Baltimore has a cut and dried policy for when to dismiss schools early in hot weather. It requires a temperature of 90 degrees by 11 a.m. Other jurisdictions leave the decision to the superintendent.
The debate over early dismissals wasn't confined to the Baltimore area. Washington County did not close schools early yesterday, and administrators heard from parents who said "that wasn't the thing to do," said Thomas A. Downs, the system's deputy superintendent.
On the Eastern Shore, Caroline County schools dismissed three hours early.
"The first time you might keep them open to toughen [students] up a bit," said Superintendent William R. Ecker, who kept Caroline schools open in Monday's heat. "We dismissed early today because it was just common sense."