Record temperatures reaching past the hundred degree mark have made this summer a scorcher in Texas. How are residents coping? Tom Bearden reports.
TOM BEARDEN: Sunrise in Dallas-already it's 80 degrees. By noon it'll be over 100. Being outdoors is simply miserable-bad enough for this family to jump into a fountain fully clothed. Sidewalk cafes are mostly deserted, despite investments in misting equipment that's supposed to make outdoor dining bearable. But for some the heat wave is more than just uncomfortable; it's potentially life threatening.
Corine Freeny is a volunteer senior companion for the Dallas Senior Citizen Center. Several times a week she visits Margaret Hamilton, who lives in a public housing project. It's Ms. Freeny's job to help her with daily living, but increasingly, these companions are also checking to see how their clients are coping with the heat. Last Friday, Ms. Hamilton's air conditioner stopped working. The temperature began to climb inside the apartment. Sunday's high reached 110 degrees.
MARGARET HAMILTON: It got very hot, hot enough to where my curls were falling down, my Shirley Temple curls. You know, and it was going down and just limped out, straight and out, and I could squeeze water from the tip of my hair.
TOM BEARDEN: Lack of air conditioning has killed more than a dozen elderly people.
MARGARET HAMILTON: I felt real nauseated. I was very sick at the stomach, and I had a little light headache, and I felt kind of dizzy, you know. And just, you know, maybe I was in a fainting, like a fainting feeling.
TOM BEARDEN: Have you seen all the stories on TV about elderly people who have died during this heat wave?
MARGARET HAMILTON: Yes, I have.
TOM BEARDEN: Do you think about that a lot?
MARGARET HAMILTON: I did. I thought about it, myself, till, you know, along with it, that it could have been me.
TOM BEARDEN: Renee Redwine runs the senior companion program. She intervened with the Housing Authority to get Ms. Hamilton's air conditioner repaired.
TOM BEARDEN: Could this situation have killed her?
RENEA REDWINE, Senior Companion Program: Definitely. Definitely. When she told me that on Sunday she was feeling nauseous, light-headed, dizzy, a little disoriented, that really scared me, because I know those are some of the symptoms of heat stroke, and so she very well could have died.
TOM BEARDEN: Redwine is very worried about Dallas's elderly population.
RENEA REDWINE: Many are on a very limited income, and I think some of them have a concern about if they do have an air conditioner, turning that on, and-
TOM BEARDEN: Because of utility costs?
RENEA REDWINE: Right, right. They're afraid that they're not going to be able to pay their electric bills. They think that they can manage okay, maybe they have a fan. What I think some of them don't realize is that this is really a life or death situation, and twelve to fifteen people here who have already died are an example of that.
TOM BEARDEN: Physicians at the Baylor University Medical Center are also worried. Doctor Joe Zibilesky works in the emergency room. He's seen a substantial increase in patients with serious heat related illnesses.
DR. JOE ZIBULEWSKI, Baylor Medical Center: Certainly in the years that I've been down here we always see a few in the summer, but usually the more mild heat exhaustion, heat cramps. The number of heat strokes we have been seeing is a significant increase.
TOM BEARDEN: Who's most at risk?
DR. JOE ZIBULEWSKI: Mostly it's two categories. It's the young, healthy person who overdoes it and doesn't realize what they're getting themselves into, and by the time they realize it, it's too late, and then the elderly patients who have other debilitating illnesses, and maybe on some medications that impair their ability to dissipate heat.
TOM BEARDEN: The forecast is for five or six more days just like this. Are you worried?
DR. JOE ZIBULEWSKI: Yes, I am. I think we're going to be in for a few more, unfortunately a few more problems over the next week or so, and that he's not going to let up all summer either, and it's still going to be in the 90's, upper 90's, the rest of the summer, so it's going to continue.
TOM BEARDEN: Normally, Dallas experiences about 15 days a year that exceed 100 degrees. So far this year it's 24, and there's no relief in sight. All of this has hit Texas farmers far. Crops were devastated just two years ago by a severe drought, and now history is repeating itself. Ben Scholz grows corn, hay, and cotton near Plano, North of Dallas. He says in the spring there was about eight feet of water in what is now a parched mud hole. Scholz says there's usually some water even at the end of the average long, hot Texas summer.
BEN SCHOLZ, Farmer: But normally we'll have at least a foot or two of water throughout the whole summer months in this pond. But this year it's been dry too long in the heat as well.
TOM BEARDEN: Most years Scholz wouldn't be harvesting his corn crop for another three weeks or so. But he'll be picking it soon to salvage what he can.
BEN SCHOLZ: The corn crop is probably at best is going to be about a 40/50 percent of a normal yield for it this year, and our hay crops at this point were usually 80 percent, and already have our hay up at least an 80 percent level for this next winter, and we're doing that. I'm not at halfway at this point.
TOM BEARDEN: That means Scholz may be forced to buy feed for his cattle this winter instead of using his own crop, cutting into his profits. City dwellers will be paying more too. Average electricity bills are expected to rise 30 percent or more as air conditioners run longer and longer. Engineers at the Texas utility's headquarters in Dallas are watching electrical demand grow by the hour, forcing them to put more and more generators on line, or to buy power from other utilities. Tom Baker is president of Distribution Services for TU/Electric.
TOM BEARDEN: In any sense, when you have this kind of demand, are you operating close to the edge if you have say a plant that goes down?
TOM BAKER, TU/Electric: Yes. One of the interesting things about the electric business is we can't have a warehouse. We have to generate it the instant that it's needed. It travels with the speed of light, so when you flip the switch in your house, it has to be generated virtually instantly when you demand it.
TOM BEARDEN: Are you like everybody else in Dallas, rooting for rain?
TOM BAKER: It would be okay. You've got to understand in our business this is a pretty good day but after a while I get hot too. We need some rain.
TOM BEARDEN: But the National Weather Service doesn't hold out much hope of relief. Skip Ely is the meteorologist in charge at the Weather Service office in Ft. Worth. He says stationary high pressure systems cause these kinds of heat waves.
SKIP ELY, National Weather Service: One of the things you see in the summer and the winter is a tendency for the patterns to sort of set up in semi-permanent kinds of places, and so it becomes a matter of well, where will the ridge setup this summer? Well, this summer it has pretty much set up over much of the southern United States, and particularly over the Texas area. And after the dry spring, the combination of the dry ground and that high pressure ridge has given us now this summer that's warmer, much warmer than normal.
TOM BEARDEN: Ely says that high pressure ridge shows no sign of dissipating. This is already the third hottest summer on record in Texas. The summer of 1998 will probably take over second place sometime next week.