A woman who has just moved here from Albuquerque called the National Weather Service yesterday wondering why it feels hotter here at 98 than in New Mexico when it's 120.

She obviously doesn't know humidity as Marylanders know humidity.

It may be our most productive summer crop. Bigger than Silver Queen corn, steamed male crabs and black-eyed Susans.

And don't expect pleasant days soon. Today, tomorrow and next week, temperatures are expected to bump well into the 90s, and the air likely will be unhealthful.

"The lady asked about the heat index," said Bob Melrose, the weather forecaster who got the call from the Albuquerque woman. "I told her what happens with heat and humidity is that it prevents your body from perspiring and causes your body temperature to increase.

"That's when you start to get cramps and palpitations," said Mr. Melrose from his air-conditioned office at Baltimore-Washington International Airport as he watched the temperature outside edging toward 100.

At 4 p.m. the temperature peaked at 98 with 46 percent humidity, making a heat index of 105 to 110, Mr. Melrose said.

But it was no record. It was 101 on July 14, 1954, at the airport and 102 in Baltimore in 1992.

The state Department of the Environment reported unhealthful air quality with a code red alert -- pollutants in the air measured at a level considered dangerously high -- for the third day running.

The air pollutants -- baking in the sunlight, heat, humidity and stagnant air -- made it dangerous to be outside for people with heart or respiratory problems, said George Krause, spokesman for the environment department.

The heavy dose of summer stopped many in their tracks.

Two southbound lanes of U.S. 29 were temporarily closed yesterday near Scaggsville in Howard County when the 900-foot-wide highway buckled, state highway officials said.

Traffic moved slowly on U.S. 29 just north of Route 216 from about 3 p.m., as crews dealt with the 1 1/2 - to 2-inch high bumps in the road, said State Highway Administration spokesman Charles Brown. The heat and humidity caused the concrete road surface to expand, Mr. Brown said, and then rise when the joints of the road bumped each other.

"It doesn't happen a lot, maybe once or twice a year, but when you get up around these extreme temperatures in the 90s and above, it can affect the roadways," Mr. Brown said.

A broken air conditioner at Harford County District Court sent many workers home when the court closed at 10:30 a.m.

And there was no escape from the heat at the Harford County Detention Center, where nearly 300 inmates are housed. A deputy sheriff said outdoor exercises were canceled because of the heat index. Inside the decades-old facility, where there is no air conditioning, the deputy said that "officers and inmates are sweating bullets."

At the Baltimore Detention Center, it was 110 degrees inside, said LaMont W. Flanagan, state commissioner of pretrial detention and services. But with ice machines, fans and outside activities, he said, "we have been successful in maintaining a tranquil environment."

In the City That Reads, it got too hot to check out a book downtown. The Central Enoch Pratt Free Library, where new air conditioning equipment is not operating yet, will be closed today, although branches will have regular hours. The downtown Pratt is closed to the public on Friday anyway, but the staff of 150 reported for work yesterday -- and sweltered.

Baltimore County Councilman Joseph Bartenfelder, a Fullerton Democrat, makes his living as a farmer and was more concerned about the heat than air quality.

"There's a big difference between 90 and 97 [degrees]," he said. "You can see it. The greens -- kale and collard greens -- have scorched leaves." He said watering the plants is helping -- although it's expensive -- but some plants such as tomatoes can't be watered in the sun.

"I'm just hoping for a thunderstorm," said Mr. Bartenfelder, who farms on the border of Baltimore and Harford counties.

Elderly people and children headed indoors for shade or for water.

"Whether you're a kid or an older person, both have to take precautions in this kind of heat," said Rena Stricker, a nurse at Heartlands Retirement Community in Ellicott City. "If someone already has a hard time breathing in the regular temperatures, they are going to have a real tough time when the air quality is bad, and it's over 90 degrees out."

Activities to celebrate the retirement community's eight-year anniversary -- including an ice carving of the Liberty Bell and a summer concert -- were moved inside because of the heat.

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