In the summer of our discontent, made hideous by the humidity, the iceman cometh -- but will he be fast enough?
Right now, AAA Emergency Ice Co. on Belair Road makes ice 24 hours a day, delivers it up to 18 hours a day and still can't handle new customers. Yet its harried and hectic workers don't complain, given the unique fringe benefits: 22-degree storage rooms.
"It's only my second day, but I'm definitely happy," Mike Nieberlein said yesterday. "I worked a 12-hour shift, but you jump in the back and" -- he shook his head happily just thinking about the deep freeze, where the cold air hits with the force of an ice-packed snowball.
His job may seem enviable to people throughout Baltimore, where downtown temperatures yesterday reached 104 degrees at 4 p.m., tying the 1990 record for the date. It was the seventh straight day of 90-plus degree temperatures, with highs across the state hitting the upper 90s.
The end is not near, warned National Weather Service forecaster Amet Figueroa. Expect highs in the upper 90s through the middle of next week, when the high should be in the low 90s.
The good news? It will be a stretch to reach today's all-time
record, 107.4 degrees set in 1930.
Blame it all on the now notorious Bermuda High, the weather system that will not be moved.
"It's like the 1,200-pound gorilla," Mr. Figueroa said. "It's so big, all the other systems are just sliding away around it."
In fact, the only nice thing that can be said about the weather is that it hasn't wreaked as much harm as it might.
No heat-related fatalities were reported yesterday. And the only notable air conditioner failure was at Baltimore's animal shelter, where the animals had to be hosed down periodically to keep them comfortable.
Heat brings train delays
The weather is causing Amtrak trains along the Boston-to-Washington corridor to run at least one hour late as long as the heat wave covers the Eastern Seaboard.
When temperatures hit 95 degrees, the speeds of Amtrak trains are reduced drastically -- from 125 mph to 80 mph for safety considerations, a company spokesman at Baltimore's Penn Station said last night. He said temperatures above 95 degrees cause metal rails to expand and occasionally buckle, and can affect overhead power lines.
Announcements of the delays are made aboard all trains, he said.
Yesterday, the heat buckled a raised concrete platform in New Carrollton. No one was hurt, and the platform was repaired by last night.
Ice is nice
At times like these, there are only two kinds of jobs. Cool -- air
conditioned offices, hospitals and ice manufacturers. And hot -- bakeries, laundries, road crews and roofers.
At AAA Emergency, the ice-making begins on the roof, in a large-scale process not unlike a freezer's automatic ice maker. Four 12-ton turbos powered by electricity -- at a cost of up to $8,000 per month -- chill water and pour it over metal plates.
A defrost cycle then loosens the ice from the plates, so it drops and moves through a crusher system, then through a separator that leaves a constant snow cap on the blazing hot roof. The ice falls into a bin in the refrigerated room below.
From there, in bags and blocks and sculptures, the ice spreads )) out to some unlikely places. Bakeries, where too-hot dough won't rise unless ice chips are mixed in. And construction jobs, where concrete temperatures must not rise above 90 degrees or it thins out and cracks.
There's also dry ice for emergencies, when groceries or restaurants lose their power and risk the inventory in their deep-freezes. Dry ice, which needs a temperature of 120 degrees below Fahrenheit to be maintained, can't make cool air, but it can maintain it.
"Everybody says I've got the coolest job in the world," said John C. McPherson IV, the third generation to work at this family-owned ice manufacturer. "But I'm glad it's seasonal. It can't get any busier."
Yesterday, as workers from Genstar Stone loaded up on ice -- 16 45-pound bags for each truckload of concrete -- a small van carried several hundred pounds over to Paul Schafer's, where it was bratwurst day. Cooked in 160-degree water for an hour, bratwurst is in the middle range of the 30 sausages prepared there.
Yesterday, at the height of the morning activity, temperatures rose to 120 degrees, owner Harold Quass estimated -- pretty hot, but not as bad as a liverwurst day.
The preparation area is bracketed by two walk-in refrigerators. One is used for raw food, and the other is used for cooked meats. At 38 degrees, the refrigerators are too cold for even a quick respite, he said.
"You can't do that, you would get arthritis," he said, when asked if he pops in and out. "You're absolutely drenched from sweat."
Those who work in constant heat develop a stoicism that often eludes those with much cushier lives. Consider Howard Thomas at Crown Cleaners in Roland Park, where he arrived about 6:30 a.m. to work behind the steam-heated pressers.
For up to six hours, Mr. Thomas stretched clothes along the presser's arm, stepping on the pedal to release jets of steam, much of which went straight into his face.
He neither knows nor cares how hot it gets, although a co-worker, Norman Miller, figures it has to be close to 130 degrees.
"It's a hot potato, no question about it," Mr. Miller said.
Life's not much better for Eastern Shore poultry farmers, whose chickens are more vulnerable when the temperature rises above 95 degrees.
"We have to periodically walk the chickens, then remove the dead chickens," said Frank Morison, president of the Delmarva Contract Poultry Growers Association. "If you get them up and walking around, they lose some of their body heat."
At Bauhoff's Bakery in Woodlawn, inside temperatures pushed past 100 degrees during the overnight baking shift. And David Hightower didn't mind one bit.
"When that oven's jumping, it's about 100 in here," he said. "I wouldn't give this up for anything."
SMOG LEVELS WILL REMAIN HIGH
For the third straight day and the fifth this week, the area's air had unhealthful levels of smog.
The Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) is warning that the hot weather, expected to last through the weekend, could bring more unhealthful air to the region. State officials advise children, the elderly and people with respiratory problems to stay indoors and avoid strenuous exercise or work.
Elevated levels of ozone, commonly known as smog, can aggravate heart and respiratory ailments. Even in healthy adults, it can cause wheezing, sore throats and irritated eyes.
Ozone forms on hot summer days when sunlight is intense and usually reaches its peak in the afternoon. It is produced from pollution caused by auto exhaust, power plants, gasoline vapors, and the use of solvents, paints and printing inks.
Air monitors detected unhealthful ozone levels in the Davidsonville area yesterday afternoon, said MDE spokesman Michael Sullivan. High readings were picked up earlier this week in Essex, Edgewood and Southern Maryland.
For those contemplating escaping the bad air, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency warns that much of the mid-Atlantic region will be plagued by unhealthful ozone levels because of the sweltering weather.