Heat to stick around longer
By Adam Smeltz
Published: Thursday, July 19, 2012, 12:01 a.m.
Drenching thunderstorms dropped quarter-sized hail, toppled trees and left thousands of Western Pennsylvanians without electricity on Wednesday, bringing temporary relief from another week of intense heat.
Up to an inch and a half of rain fell in some spots in less than an hour, and about 18,000 Duquesne Light customers lost power — although crews reduced that number to 1,700 by 10 p.m. More than 2,000 West Penn Power customers lost electricity; that number had been cut in half by 9 p.m.
But the respite from the heat was brief, with temperatures expected to return to the mid-80s on Thursday and nearly 90 next week. A record-setting summer that has inflated air-conditioning bills and sent people scrambling for anywhere cool shouldn't break any time soon, according to long-range forecasts.
For Richard Rabinek, 74, of the South Side Slopes, relief won't come at home. Like thousands of Pittsburgh-area residents, he has no room in his budget for air conditioners, relying instead on a fan to fight the elements.
“I don't get home before 9 at night because I don't want to go in the house,” which can top 90 degrees, Rabinek said. “You get older; you can't take the heat.”
The retired steel-mill worker spends full days at the Market House Healthy Active Living Center, a city cooling center just off Carson Street. A few dozen people gathered there at midday, many of them without air conditioning at home.
About 21 percent of Pittsburgh-area homes had no air conditioning in 2004, the most recent year for which federal survey data are available. Among households below the poverty level, the number climbed to about 30 percent.
While officials encourage those families to use four public cooling centers, thousands of sweltering residents have found comfort in other public places. The air-conditioned Carnegie Library in Oakland might have more than 15,000 visitors this week, up from 11,000 weekly visitors a couple of weeks ago, a spokeswoman said.
“Anecdotally, I believe we're seeing more people sitting in the reading areas during the heat,” said Christy Fusco, director at the Monroeville Public Library. “I think it's a comfortable and relaxing place to get away from the heat.”
Stories were similar at the SouthSide Works cinema, South Hills Village and the Ross Park Mall, company representatives said. All attributed foot-traffic increases to the oppressive weather.
The West Penn Allegheny Health System feels the heat as more patients pour into its emergency rooms, said the emergency medicine chairman, Thomas Campbell. He said emergency room traffic jumps about 1 percent or 2 percent for three- to four-day heat waves.
During one- to two-week heat waves, Campbell said, the increase can hit 5 percent. At a hospital like Allegheny General on the North Side, that can mean nine more emergency patients a day.
Campbell said people with chronic health conditions, forced to stay indoors when temperatures turn dangerous, can lose their patience as hot weather lingers. Suffering cabin fever, they may try to exert themselves as a heat wave persists, he said.
“They know they should be in a cool environment,” Campbell said. “But after two or three days … you start to attempt things that you really shouldn't.”
The heat didn't scare away those playing softball for the West Point All-Stars in Hempfield for the first afternoon of a multi-day tournament.
The girls are encouraged to drink water, said Jeff Ryan, father of Peyton Ryan, 10, who plays right field.
“They do (have) a cooler with ice and towels, so in between innings, the girls can cool off with those,” Ryan said. “The dugouts luckily are in the shade.”
Watching the game from a shady spot, Sandy Golden came armed with water, Gatorade, a hat and a fan-mister.
“I came prepared,” said Golden, who traveled from Johnstown to watch her granddaughter Sarah Golden, 10, play catcher.
Another weather-related risk rests on local rivers and lakes, where water levels already have dipped to late-summer and early-fall levels under dry conditions.
Authorities urged boaters and other weekend warriors to be wary of the low water, which is likely to continue through the season, said Werner Loehlein, chief of water management for the Army Corps of Engineers in Pittsburgh.
“We're just stuck in this extended dry period, and it looks like it's going to be with us for at least the next 90 days,” he said. “We don't see the end in sight.”
Staff writers Adam Wagner, Rossilynne Skena, Rick Wills and Tony LaRussa contributed to this report. Adam Smeltz can be reached at 412-380-5676 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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