Baltimore area warms up to summerlike weather

Relief from drought and high temperatures might be days away

June 02, 1999|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN STAFF

We're not having a heat wave. We're not setting any records for scorching temperatures. And if you think it's been hot these past few days, weather forecasters warn: just wait until August.

But with three weeks until the official start of summer, Maryland's fourth straight day of temperatures in the high 80s and low 90s -- about 10 degrees hotter than normal -- has caused its share of problems.

Measurable rainfall hasn't fallen in the Baltimore area for eight days -- and the lack of rain may last another week and a half. Farmers are worried that the drought may continue into the summer, and some have stopped planting soybeans.

Carroll County officials banned outdoor water use in two of the county's most populous areas -- Eldersburg and Sykesville -- because the water treatment plant has been running above its daily capacity of 3 million gallons for five consecutive days.

Mechanical failures have shut down the air conditioning in 10 of Baltimore's 18 ambulances, forcing paramedics to keep medicine in coolers and raising concerns of patients suffering heat-related medical problems.

Relief is not coming soon.

"We're kind of stuck in this weather pattern," said Dewey Walston, a forecaster with the National Weather Service in Sterling, Va.

The only break might be tonight, when a weak cold front is expected to move across the Baltimore area. "There is a slight chance of a shower or a thunderstorm Wednesday night," Walston said. "After that, there is no sign of any rainfall for 10 days."

Maryland is experiencing drought conditions, according to the National Weather Service, and state agencies have issued several warnings on preventing heatstroke and heat exhaustion. They advise people to drink plenty of liquids and avoid strenuous activities.

The Maryland Department of the Environment issued a "Code Orange" health warning yesterday, rating the air quality unhealthy for sensitive individuals -- those with asthma or heart and respiratory ailments.

State officials said they expect a "Code Red" warning today, meaning children and healthy people should limit strenuous work and outdoor exercise.

`Only 90 degrees'

Baltimore officials reported no significant problems or a jump in heat-related emergency calls. "It's only 90 degrees out," said Health Commissioner Dr. Peter L. Beilenson, who reminded residents to check on their elderly friends and relatives and make sure pets have water.

The official high temperature recorded at 5: 30 p.m. yesterday at Baltimore-Washington International Airport was 87 degrees, well short of the record 93 in 1991. The high temperature was 85 degrees Friday, 88 degrees Saturday, 91 degrees Sunday and 89 degrees Monday. Normal temperatures for this time of year are about 80 degrees.

Temperatures are typically hotter in the city; the Maryland Science Center recorded a high of 89 degrees at 5: 30 p.m. yesterday. Walston said the humidity will increase every day for the next week. But, he cautioned, "It's still not as oppressive as we will see in the middle of the summer."

Heat wave doesn't have an official definition, but national weather forecasters typically declare it in Maryland when the temperature reaches 90 degrees or higher for three or more days. The longest heat wave was in 1995, when the state sweated out 25 days of sizzling temperatures -- three that exceeded 100 degrees and the dew point reached levels typical for the equator.

Lack of rain is concern

Maryland is not in such dire straits, but the lack of rainfall is a growing concern. Only 1.72 inches of rain fell at BWI last month, two inches short of normal for the month.

All of Maryland except Garrett County is in a moderate to severe drought, with Southern Maryland and the Upper Shore hardest-hit. Similar conditions exist in much of the mid-Atlantic states, Florida, Georgia, Alabama and the Gulf Coast.

"It's very serious," said Lawrence Meeks, who grows about 2,000 acres of grain in northern Carroll County and southern Pennsylvania. "People are worried. The dust is flying and the wind blows every day."

Meeks said adequate rain is falling at his fields near Taneytown and Littlestown, Pa., but farms around Westminster and south are getting so little rain that some farmers have stopped planting soybeans, fearing they won't sprout.

"Corn plants are small, so dry weather is not as detrimental now as it will be later, but we're all concerned about this pattern we're seeing now," he said.

In Baltimore, the biggest heat-related problem was with the city's ambulance fleet. David Cox, vice president of the Firefighters Union Local 734, said 14 ambulances during the Memorial Day weekend did not have working air conditioning.

Cox said temperatures inside the paramedic units can rise to 120 degrees, but he said answers have not been forthcoming from fire headquarters. "All they can say is that they are working on the problem," he said.

Battalion Chief Hector L. Torres said the number of ambulances affected is now 10. "They are being fixed," Torres said. "I don't think there's any one reason. Each unit probably has a different problem."

The long-range forecast for this month through August is vague. Meteorologists foresee greater chances for warmer-than-normal temperatures in Maryland, but no trend for precipitation.

Weather scientists have forecast a busier-than-normal Atlantic hurricane season. The 1999 season opens today and runs through November.

Sun staff writers Frank D. Roylance, Anne Haddad and Mary Gail Hare contributed to this article.

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