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24 Jul, 2024
Extreme heat kills seven as temperatures soar in Washington area
8 mins read

Extreme heat kills seven as temperatures soar in Washington area

Seven people have died from heat in the Washington, D.C., area, officials confirmed Wednesday, as scorching temperatures forced elected officials to cancel public events, close sports fields and encourage residents to stay indoors.

Heat indices have topped 100 degrees for a string of consecutive days this week, prompting the National Weather Service to issue heat warnings for the region for three straight days. The heat is expected to ease somewhat Thursday and Friday before rising again over the weekend and into next week, setting up another uncomfortable stretch for the region’s second-hottest start to summer on record, according to the Capital Weather Gang.

In the Washington region, the fear that echoes through the steady drumbeat of warnings and public proclamations is that this week’s weather could bring more heat-related illnesses and potential deaths.

“We encourage residents to stay hydrated and limit outdoor activities as much as possible,” Prince George’s County Executive Angela D. Alsobrooks (D) said Friday. “It’s also important to check in on your family members, friends and neighbors, especially the elderly, families with young children, people with special needs or people living alone during periods of extreme heat.”

In Maryland, six people have died from heat-related illnesses, and four of the victims were in Prince George’s, according to the Maryland Department of Health’s weekly heat-related illness surveillance report. Two of the deceased were between the ages of 45 and 64, while two were over 65. The two additional deaths were in Anne Arundel County and Baltimore City. The first death occurred in May, and the number of deaths increased in late June.

According to Maryland data, nine people died from heat in 2023.

In Montgomery County, officials said county-run libraries, swimming pools, recreation centers and senior centers would remain open during regular business hours to serve as places for refreshment during the day.

The county transportation department will also provide free bottled water on select buses for customers using the Ride On, ExtRa, Flex and Flash bus systems. Homeless shelters will also remain open at all hours.

Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich (D) is one of the residents sweating through these uncomfortable days. He has been without air conditioning in his home for nearly four weeks while he waits for a replacement.

“There’s nothing like having a house where it’s about 90 degrees at bedtime,” he said with a wry smile from his office at the start of a news conference Wednesday. “It’s delicious.”

He urged people who need to escape the heat to go to a county library, swimming pool, senior center or recreation center to cool off.

“We have asked people to be careful,” he said.

In Virginia, the Department of Health confirmed one recent heat-related death but did not provide further details. The agency reported that 1,681 people visited hospital emergency rooms or urgent care clinics for heat-related illnesses from May 1 through Tuesday, an increase of more than 115% from last year.

Heat-related emergencies peaked Saturday, when 111 people went to Virginia emergency departments, but Tuesday was second with 105 incidents, according to agency data.

Christian Martinez, a spokesman for Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R), said the governor is monitoring the situation across the state.

“Governor Youngkin continues to actively collaborate with multiple state secretariats and agencies along with our federal and local partners to assess conditions and provide guidance to Virginians, enabling local governments and families to implement appropriate measures to keep Virginians safe across the Commonwealth,” Martinez said in a written statement.

Virginia is also bracing for a possible drought. Last month, the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality issued a drought warning for the northern Virginia region — including Fauquier, Loudoun, Prince William, Arlington and Fairfax counties — as well as seven counties in the Shenandoah region.

The warning means that significant heat-related drought is “imminent,” the advisory said.

The Virginia Drought Monitoring Task Force, made up of federal and state officials from environmental quality, meteorology, agriculture and health, found that streamflows were at or below 25% of normal levels in every region of the state, while groundwater levels were declining in northern, central and eastern regions. Water levels in monitoring wells were extremely low — below 5% of normal — in northern Virginia, Shenandoah, Roanoke, the New River in the southwest and the York-James River region on the Peninsula.

Reservoir levels remained normal, but the department said it was working on drought response plans with officials across the state. The announcement encouraged residents to “protect water supplies by minimizing water use, monitoring drought conditions and detecting and repairing leaks.”

Weedon Cloe, a drought expert with the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, said this year’s hot and dry conditions are a little earlier than last year’s “but not out of the realm of what we’ve seen over the years.”

To alleviate the drought, “we really just need some rain to fall to alleviate the soil moisture deficit, to recharge groundwater and to restore some water flow to streams and fields, especially for farmers in the Shenandoah Valley region,” Cloe said.

In the District, no heat-related deaths have been reported so far, according to a DC Health spokesperson.

The city is hosting world leaders this week for the NATO summit, and police are already working extended 12-hour shifts through the end of the week to maintain road closures and security measures related to the event, according to D.C. police spokesman Tom Lynch. However, he said, the heat has not forced the department to cancel events or change its stance.

“We are taking great care to provide water and refreshments to our officers, especially those on posts surrounding the (NATO) summit. But other than that, our position remains unchanged,” Lynch wrote in a text message.

In the city center, people rushed into buildings, breathing a sigh of relief as they felt the cool air conditioning inside. Many fanned themselves profusely, seeking shade from the sun.

Near the White House, Secret Service members stood behind the tall black barriers that line 15th Street NW, wiping sweat from their brows and pulling on their heavy vests. Street vendors who had been selling water and ice cream since early in the morning sought shelter under the scaffolding of a nearby building under construction.

Some workers, however, had no choice but to brave the heat. George Brown, a 50-year-old postal worker, remained positive. Even at the height of the day, at 12:30 p.m., Brown said he tries to focus on the little moments that make his day more enjoyable, like enjoying a rare “nice breeze” on what he describes as a pretty hot day, even for him.

As beads of sweat rolled down his face, Brown, who has worked in the postal service for more than 30 years, brushed off the heat, saying it was important not to “think about it so much that you’re like, ‘Oh my God, it’s so hot.'”

A brief relief came just before 3 p.m., when clouds covered the scorching sun for a few moments and raindrops fell.

Humidity, however, continued to weigh on construction crews at work Wednesday afternoon outside the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Jose Hernandez, 54, said he and his team coped with the heat by drinking plenty of water and Gatorade.

The crew sometimes cuts back on their hours in warm weather, Hernandez said. But Wednesday wasn’t one of those days. They’d been on 13th and H Streets NW since 6 a.m.

“Today is not so bad,” Hernandez said. On hot days like these, he added, “sometimes you have to do what you have to do.”

Jenny Gathright, Lateshia Beachum, Jasmine Hilton and Jason Samenow contributed to this report.