Southerners Fend Off Heat With Fans and Stoicism

For many, the daily pace has slowed to a crawl in the face of 100-degree days and rainless nights.

It's the start of yet another 100-degree day at a farmers market here, and Bobby Atkinson is mopping his brow behind a table of fresh-picked tomatoes and cantaloupes. Ask him how he survives the heat, and he'll give you an earful about the days before air conditioning.

"Back when I was a kid, we did all the work by hand," he says, as his wife, Barbara, handles the stream of customers at their stall. "Basically, it's all the same rules. You drink a lot of water, you wear a big hat, and if you get too hot, slow down."

Believe it or not, attitudes like this are still common among the longtime residents of the South and Southwest, even in the era of the air conditioner. But this summer may even test the hardiest of Southerners, as meteorologists predict that the current spate of unusually hot weather will continue into September. Drought-like conditions stretch from Florida to California and deep into Mexico, but Texas stands to take the hardest hit. Agricultural losses here are already projected to reach nearly $4.5 billion this year.

But while the news media have tended to focus on the number of 100-degree days (25 in Dallas thus far, 32 in Waco) and on the number of heat-related deaths (27 in Texas, 20 in Louisiana, and 43 illegal immigrants crossing into Texas from Mexico), what often gets missed is the resilience and wisdom that people exhibit in harsh conditions. It's not uncommon to find Texans checking up on shut-ins, or turning up the thermostat to conserve power, or waiting another day to water their precious petunias. And it's not uncommon to hear of volunteers pitching in to fight the most feared enemy in a drought: wildfires.

Fire risk

"We have had twice the number of forest fires but we've burned less than half the acreage," says Jo Schweikhard Moss, spokeswoman for the Texas Division of Emergency Management in Austin, noting that more than half of all firefighters in Texas are volunteers. "Now it's hard to prove something that didn't happen, but clearly, something is being done right." Even the fireworks industry showed some restraint this Fourth of July; most refused to sell aerial fireworks because of tinder-dry conditions. "People are just being more careful."

If the current weather projections are any guide, this careful attitude may be needed for a while. The exceptional hot and dry weather appears to be driven by La Nia, an abnormally cool-water current in the equatorial Pacific Ocean. So while El Nio, the better-known, warm-water current brought extra rain to Texas last winter, La Nia is expected to bring Texas and the Southwest some of the hottest temperatures in almost 20 years.

"The next couple weeks look pretty bad," says David Huckaby, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Fort Worth. A high-pressure ridge has lingered over the Texas-Louisiana region almost nonstop for two months, he says, which makes it difficult for showers to develop. And with little moisture in the ground, the earth heats up faster, often reaching well above 100 degrees. "If it continues to be dry, the heat should continue."

Of course, one person's heat is another person's paradise. Consider Paul Kisel, manager of the Inks Lake State Park in central Texas. For him, hot days have meant that the 228 campsites on this man-made lake on the upper Colorado River have been booked solid every weekend this summer, drawing swimmers and fishers from all over the state.

"I tell you what, the lake is blue and clear and the fish are biting," says Mr. Kisel, adding that he caught a 16-pound striped bass himself this week. "I tell people, 'No offense, but just go jump in the lake.' "

Out on the sweltering streets of Austin, where David Patterson is delivering mail from his un-air-conditioned truck, that may sound like a tempting offer. But with his Colorado vacation still a month off, Mr. Patterson offers his own remedies for keeping cool.

"On a day like this, you go stand in the sprinklers in someone's yard," he says, adding, "Obviously, you don't take the mail into the sprinklers."

Like most postal carriers, Patterson consumes nearly a gallon of water a day, wears sunscreen, and dons a pith helmet like the ones favored by Victorian-era British explorers. And he wouldn't trade his early downtown route for a suburban route for all the world. "Those guys work in the heat of the day, from 8 in the morning till sometimes 6 p.m. No thank you."

Experience helps

Richard Kilgore, a cab driver parked in front of the historic Driskill Hotel in Austin, reads his paper as if the heat were no big deal. But maybe that's because he's had practice.

"I lived out in the desert of Arizona for years and years, and I used to work out in that heat," says Mr. Kilgore, appropriately dressed in a loose cotton shirt, blue-jean cutoffs, and rubber sandals. "My personal record is 126 degrees, out in Death Valley."

So does that mean he likes the heat?

"Oh no, it's miserable, terrible, awful."

Pointing to a stack of half-liter bottles of spring water on the front seat of his cab, he says, "I go through about four or five of these a day."

But to get an idea of just how much heat a human being can take, spend a few minutes with James Williams and other co-workers on a road construction job out in the concrete canyons of downtown Austin. There, the only shade is your shadow, and all the slack-jawed media reports about heat are tossed off as irrelevant.

"It's in you or it's not," says Mr. Williams, who normally shakes hands with strangers but right now his hands are covered with a rust-colored grime. "I've been doing this 14, 15 years. You just drink a lot of water and stay busy. If you stop to think about it, it'll kill you."

Co-worker Ricky Porter chimes in: "You know how I deal with it?" He looks toward heaven.

"That's how I deal with it."

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