Heat takes toll, but it's far from city's worst


It's been a summer of sweat-soaked shirts and Oh, my God power bills, of wilting workers and days spent in search of shade. It's been a deadly summer.

The sweltering summer of 2002 will be remembered for many things. But no matter how uncomfortable it may feel, it probably won't be remembered as a record-breaker.

Not even close.

"The perception of the weather is funny," said Chris Strong of the National Weather Service forecast office in Sterling, Va. "It's always very skewed toward what the last few weeks have been like."

And the past 11 days have seen the mercury at Baltimore-Washington International Airport rise to 90 degrees or more - the longest hot streak of the season.

But be glad it's not 1995 - when Baltimoreans endured 25 straight days of 90-degree heat.

Be glad it's not 1988 - when the thermometer at BWI hit or surpassed 90 degrees 54 times, eight more than this year.

Or be glad it's not 1943 - Baltimore's hottest summer on record, when the temperature averaged 79.1 degrees. (But nobody seemed to whine: Headlines in The Sun were dominated by World War II, not weather.)

So far, this summer ranks as only the 18th-hottest in Baltimore since government meteorologists began keeping records in 1871. The average temperature to date: 77.1 degrees.

But even if it hasn't set a record, the heat has taken its toll - sometimes devastatingly so. According to the state health department, 43 Marylanders have died of heat-related causes this year. Most of the heat-related deaths were in Baltimore, which has recorded 27.

"Part of the problem is, a lot more people are living alone," said Baltimore Health Commissioner Dr. Peter L. Beilenson.

Whether people work inside or out, the heat has been tough to handle.

"This is the worst summer I can remember in my 28 years in this business," said Mike DiBello of DiBello Roofing. His guys, he says, gobble salt tablets like candy and often have to knock off early.

Even those in the suit-and-tie set who don't stand on a hot tar roof all day, it hasn't been easy on the job, says Andrew Dean, CEO of FocalBase Internet Solutions in Westminster.

Dean says he's watched his employees go from draining a five-gallon water bottle once a week or so to drinking that amount per day.

"The electric bill is equally unbearable," said Ravi Aggarwal of New Horizons, a Baltimore County computer training firm. Cooling the 200 PCs in company classrooms has caused his power bill - $2,000 or so a month in winter - to double, he says.

In Anne Arundel County, the superintendent issued an emergency order yesterday to run school air conditioners from two hours before classes until two hours afterward to keep teachers cool.

Round-the-clock air conditioning has taken its toll on utilities. Baltimore Gas and Electric Co., which serves 1.1 million customers in the city and surrounding counties, broke its all-time record, churning out 6,678 megawatts of power on July 29, said company spokeswoman Sharon Sasada.

The average residential electric bill last month rose to $113, up 6 percent, she said. So many air conditioners are running - and breaking - that Sears repairmen are as much as a week behind in fixing them.

And air conditioners aren't the only things breaking down. The AAA Mid-Atlantic emergency road service call center in Elkton has been besieged by calls from motorists with overheated engines and batteries, says spokesman Myra Wieman.

"It's been unbelievable," she said. "They're all just really feeling it."

Wieman said the busiest day this summer was Aug. 5 - on the tail end of a nine-day hot spell - when 3,391 members phoned for help.

Of course, there are some who are finding that heat can be cool.

At Bear Creek Golf Club outside Westminster, water hazards are starting to resemble sand traps, so low has the water level fallen. Golfers love it, says general manager Rick Switalski. "It makes it easier to pick up balls you'd normally lose."

As the course bakes brown, golfers are finding that their balls roll farther, too.

Says Switalski: "They're more likely to get a Tiger Woods drive out there."

Sun staff writers Athima Chansanchai, Stephen Kiehl, Josh Mitchell, and Frank Roylance contributed to this article.

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