Dog days of summer have a vicious bite Weather service issues 'heat alert' BLISTERING SUMMER

July 07, 1993|By David Michael Ettlin | David Michael Ettlin,Staff Writer

Find a patch of shade. Change the air-conditioner filter. Hunt for a sea breeze, and don't let it get away. Summer's hottest temperatures have settled over Maryland, and forecasts say they won't be leaving soon.

While the temperatures have not reached record highs, they are high enough to prompt warnings by health experts and -- combined with oppressive humidity -- the declaration of an "excessive heat alert" by the National Weather Service.

An alert is issued when the "heat index" -- how hot it "feels" -- reaches 105 degrees or higher for at least a two-day period, according to Amet Figueroa, a forecaster for the Weather Service office at Baltimore-Washington International Airport.

Index figures rise and fall with the humidity. With a typical summer Bermuda-high weather pattern pumping warm, moist air over the East Coast, the heat feels hotter. While air temperatures fluctuated in the low and middle 90s yesterday afternoon, the index figures steamed as high as 107 degrees.

For today, the Weather Service predicted a heat index of 105 to 110.

Phoenix won't be much hotter -- which can't be a very comforting thought to the people who have to work in the uncomfortable, even dangerous, outdoors fixing potholes, climbing telephone poles or delivering the mail that accumulated in post offices over the holiday weekend.

Allen Costley, a 32-year-old road construction worker from Westminster, said yesterday that when he wonders if hot-weather work is worth the sweat, he starts seeing things.

"I see the rent bill, the grocery bill, the gas bill, the car payment, then I see shoes, clothes," said Mr. Costley, a father of six who has been working from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. in the dusty pit that was once Westminster's Main Street -- and will again be a street once storm drains and other infrastructure are repaired.

After work, he said, "I go home, take a shower and sit under the air conditioner."

In some places, indoor work wasn't much better. Temperatures inside the Carroll County Courthouse Annex reached 95 degrees by noon -- courtesy of a broken air conditioner -- prompting District Judge Donald M. Smith to cancel most cases on the afternoon docket and send many staffers home.

"It's daunting," said Steve Harden, a cable maintenance technician for C&P Telephone Co. who has been working in the heat and humidity every day since Sunday, trying to repair damage to lines caused by recent rains.

Wearing a white work helmet and a black T-shirt -- a fashion choice he admitted was "stupid" -- Mr. Harden said he coped with the heat by drinking a lot of fluids and taking a few breaks. "Occasionally, I have to go somewhere with air conditioning, because I'll begin to feel woozy and strange. And doing my job -- climbing a telephone pole -- I don't want to feel woozy and strange.

At Columbia's Lake Kittamaqundi, ducks seemed to prefer lying in the shade over wading in the water. "The geese were actually panting because it's so hot out here," said Felice Homann of Baltimore, who was sitting nearby with a friend.

But the weather was just right, as far as Lorra Brown was concerned. "I've lived in Maryland all my life so I'm used to this," said Ms. Brown, 31, of Pasadena, who took her two daughters swimming at Sandy Point State Park. "It's a little sticky, but it's fine."

The blazing heat prompted some people to cancel scheduled rounds of golf at Pine Ridge Golf Course in Baltimore County -- but it also helped identify the real addicts of the sport like Bob Caldwell, 75, and his buddies, Jim Swisher, 66, and Charles Watson, 76, who played a full 18 holes.

"We damn near died," Mr. Caldwell said, resting under a tree with his companions after the five-hour ordeal. "But we did it because we love golf. . . . I'm going home to the air conditioner and a nice cold beer."

"You've heard of the dog days of summer?" asked Diane Stapleton, an attendant at the Baltimore County animal shelter. "This is it. The dogs are all back there laying down, trying to conserve energy. I don't think you'll find one animal back there standing up."

Farm animals also are affected by the heat. In hot weather, cows eat less and drink more -- and their milk production plummets, said John Butler, a spokesman for the Maryland Farm Bureau. Cows will "spend more energy getting cool," he said.

But a prolonged hot spell may have more economic impact on crops. High temperatures can cause some plants to ripen too quickly, before the fruit or vegetables are fully grown.

"You lose some weight and you lose some quality" when that happens, he said.

Sweet corn, watermelons and cantaloupes are the crops most affected right now, he said. "The heat just zaps the energy out of the plants very quick. If the weather continues like this, you might lose some plants."

Of the 14,800 farming families in Maryland's 23 counties, those on the Eastern Shore and Southern Maryland, with their sandier soils, will be most affected, Mr. Butler said.

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