Heat at Code Red

City declares emergency for year's hottest week yet

Large parts of U.S. are stifling under a mass of hot air


James Williams was looking for relief. A deep drink of water. A seat in the shade. A towel to wipe the sweat from his brow.

The homeless man, whose shirt was damp with perspiration, said he was grateful for the bottle of water he got from an outreach worker who found him resting in the shade outside St. Vincent de Paul Roman Catholic Church in downtown Baltimore.

"It's the terriblest day of my life," said Williams, 50, who was aided by Health Care for the Homeless of Baltimore. "The heat just makes everything that much harder."

Scores of other people sought temporary reprieve at 10 air-conditioned "cooling centers" scattered across the city as the region braced for the hottest week of the year.

Weather forecasters say they expect temperatures to hover in the high 90s today, and the lower 90s through Friday. The record for today's date at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport is 102 degrees, a mark that has stood since 1887. The forecast high is 99.

Yesterday, BWI reported a high of 98 about 3 p.m., three degrees shy of the 1988 record of 101.

The heat crisis prompted officials in the city, where temperatures tend to be higher than in the suburbs and more people live without air conditioning or cooling fans, to declare a "code red heat alert," a state of emergency preparedness, that will also be in effect today.

State health officials also issued a "hot weather advisory" yesterday in hopes of preventing medical emergencies and heat-related deaths.

"I cannot emphasize enough the importance of checking on your elderly relatives, friends and neighbors," said Maryland Health Secretary S. Anthony McCann in a written release announcing the advisory yesterday. "You never know when they may be in distress."

Individuals particularly vulnerable to the effects of hot, humid conditions include elderly adults, young children and people who are overweight, have heart disease, diabetes or other chronic health problems, McCann said.

He advised residents to drink plenty of liquids and to wear loose-fitting, light-colored clothing as a precaution against heat stoke or heat exhaustion.

Since June six heat-related deaths have been reported in the state - one each in Baltimore City, and Harford, Montgomery, Prince George's, Somerset and Worcester counties, according to the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

Details of the deaths were not made available yesterday.

Baltimore Health Commissioner Dr. Joshua M. Sharfstein said he was especially worried about elderly residents who might not have regular contact with family and friends.

He said the city is tracking heat-related calls for ambulances in an effort to gauge whether its outreach work is adequate. Baltimore officials have opened a number of cooling centers and are making telephone calls to shut-in residents.

"The concern is that people will get trapped in stifling apartments and suffer injuries or death," Sharfstein said. "Some people just need help when it gets this hot."

Officials in other jurisdictions responded to the heat by opening senior centers to the public or by encouraging residents to seek temporary relief at public libraries, which are air conditioned.

A spokesman for the Baltimore County Fire Department said it had received several calls yesterday from people having difficulty breathing because of the heat - generally elderly people who were taken by ambulance to the nearest hospital for treatment.

By 3 p.m. yesterday, Baltimore County officials announced the opening of three cooling centers at existing senior facilities, one each in Essex, Lansdowne and Parkville.

In Carroll County, officials said they wanted to invite anyone suffering from the heat to the jurisdiction's five facilities for the elderly.

"Anyone is welcome there," said Vivian D. Laxton, Carroll County's chief spokeswoman.

Officials in Anne Arundel and Howard counties said they had yet to open cooling centers but were monitoring the situation.

Baltimore City officials also announced yesterday that trash collection will begin at 6 a.m. this week.

Weather forecasters blamed the region's heat wave on a polar jet stream that has retreated north above the Canadian border. That has allowed a huge mass of warm air to settle in across the continental United States, where it has been heating up under a strong midsummer sun.

"You can look pretty much from coast to coast, and high temperatures in the 90s are going to be common," meteorologist Jeff Warner of the Penn State Weather Communications Group said yesterday. "Some areas will exceed triple digits."

With many summer heat waves, he said, "one section will be particularly hot while other places are relatively cool. This is a fairly large area that's covered by the hot air. There's no major dips in the jet [stream] to bring any cool air south."

That was changing yesterday, but it might bring less relief than Marylanders would like.

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