Too hot for comfort: heat wave sizzles US

More than 200 heat records have been broken across the West during the past few weeks

In most parts of the country, jumping in the pool is a great way to beat the heat, but here in the Southwest it's so hot that one entrepreneur has hit pay dirt with his rapidly expanding business: pool coolers. The contraption sucks 30 gallons of pool water a minute into a small tank and then fan-cools it over a set of plastic coils, transforming afternoon backyard bathwater into a refreshing morning dip.

It's a welcome invention here with the recent 110 days that has even longtime Phoenicians complaining about the heat.

This summer's heat wave has broken more than 200 heat records across the West, chasing residents indoors and causing 21 deaths in the Pheonix area. The breadth of fallen records is hardly surprising considering the unusually long stretch of high temperatures that has colored most of the nation in bright orange on US weather maps for weeks on end.

"It's been a very long string of hot days, longer than normal," said Craig Schmidt, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Salt Lake City. "It's been especially abnormal for late July because the monsoon kicked in late, and allowed the heat to continuously build up each day with no relief."

Temperatures soaring over 100

Arizona thermometers routinely read around 115 in July and August, and many residents make good use of condos at the shore, or cabins in the mountains, but this summer the city streets are more deserted than usual at midday, and the dreaded newcomer comment, "Hot enough for ya?' " has made a comeback among lifers here in the Valley of the Sun.

The city opened a makeshift cooling site Saturday to offer water and health checks, as well as air-conditioned buses where homeless people can cool down. The move was criticized by some as too little, too late - most of the area heat-related deaths have been among those who live on the streets.

Every summer Phoenix awaits monsoon season with a mixture of eagerness and apprehension, since the season presages cooler temperatures, but brings with it severe weather in the form of high humidity, daily thunderstorms, and often flash floods. This year, the monsoon began on July 18, later than usual, and residents are hopeful that lower temperatures are on the way.

Waiting for the monsoon

Usually the monsoon moisture comes up from the south and brings heat relief further north, but this year a high pressure system has kept that moisture stuck in the south, leaving temps in the north higher than usual, Mr. Schmidt said.

The rest of the country has been wilting, too. Los Angeles has been posting record temps in the 100-plus range, triggering several power plant failures last week and southern California's first electricity supply emergency in more than two years. California's Independent System Operator, which monitors energy use, is hoping voluntary conservation will prevent the need for rolling blackouts, according to spokeswoman Stephanie McCorkle.

In East Los Angeles, Fourth Street Elementary School is scrambling to repair or replace air conditioners - many of the air conditioners in the school's portable classrooms don't work and year-round classes mean kids and teachers are braving rooms with 90-degree heat.

Meanwhile, in drought-plagued Chicago, Lake Michigan is seven inches lower than last year at this time, and lawns are slowly turning brown. With forecast predictions in the 100s over the weekend, the not-so-Windy City issued a heat warning and opened its 24-hour cooling center. Portable highway construction signs flashed this reminder to motorists, "Drink lots of water."

Chicago has streamlined its heat response into a model of efficiency - hard-won knowledge after the heat wave of 1995, which contributed to the deaths of more than 700 people. When the heat warnings kick in, city employees, from garbage collectors to meter readers, begin checking on vulnerable populations such as the elderly and the indigent who might be at risk.

Across Midwest regions the drought is taking on epic proportions. Rainfall in Iowa's Quad Cities is so low that it rivals the Dust Bowl years of the 1930s, according to statistics. In Kansas City, where temperatures were expected to hover near 100 through Monday, officials urged citizens to stay hydrated. Even the Kansas City Zoo is making sure its more than 900 animals have shade and water-misters.

Frozen treats at the zoo

Special treats were also in the offing - the California sea lions were scheduled for a frozen fish snack, and the hippos got their regular veggies from the freezer. But really, these comfort measures are just zoo PR, said Randy Wisthoff, zoo director. "For instance, our sea lions. They don't care if their fish is frozen or not. The water in their pool is 60 or 65 degrees today," he says. "And many of our animals are from equatorial regions, so they know to stay in the shade." It's the two-footed visitors, he adds, who should focus on staying cool.

The heat wave is expected to end for most parts of the country around Wednesday, as cooler air moves southward.

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