When the Heat Can’t Be Beat
PHOENIX — Anne Morollo thought she could escape brutal summers by moving from Florida to the foothills of the Rockies three years ago. The stinging air and orange sky of her first wildfire shattered that illusion.
She moved back to the South five months ago, and these days, all she does is stay home, avoid the front seat of her broiling Volvo, and sink into air-conditioned isolation. “I always thought I could wriggle my way around this,” said Ms. Morollo, 57, who now lives in Savannah, Ga. “But what can I do?”
Call it surrendering to summer.
As much of the country sweats through a string of record-setting heat waves — it’s the hottest summer ever in some Texas cities, parts of Oklahoma haven’t been this hot since the Dust Bowl, and places in the normally temperate Pacific Northwest are seeing triple-digit temperatures — people are beginning to refashion their lives simply to survive the ultramarathon of misery that now defines the white-hot American summer.
Some are turning nocturnal, venturing out for jogs or dog walks before the sun rises or long after it sets. Some keep their curtains closed at all hours of the day, or head out into the steamy world with a frozen water bottle. A florist in New Jersey threads silk flowers into outdoor arrangements, because natural lilies wither in the sun. People with limited incomes are cutting back on other essentials so they can keep the air-conditioner running.
This summer feels especially intolerable because every escape from the heat comes with a catch.
Want a road trip to the mountains? Average gas prices might be coming down, but they’re still about $4.30 a gallon, a dollar higher than last summer. Want to fly somewhere cooler? Europe just wilted under a record-setting heat wave, Asia is no better, and air travel is a snarled nightmare of canceled flights and delays.
Officials across the country are struggling to keep people safe. On the beaches of Orange County, the California Junior Life Guards now take mandatory hourly breaks to hydrate and check their sunscreen. Sacramento is converting a former science museum into a “respite center” for homeless people. New York City kept public pools open longer during a recent heat wave, and community gardens added extra watering shifts to volunteers’ agendas.
Daniel Hyde, 24, a financial associate in New York, scrapped his plans to play basketball at a park as record-breaking temperatures pummeled the Northeast last week, and went instead to a community center’s fan-cooled basement.
“The effect of the sun beaming on you outside is extremely dangerous,” he said. “It’s better here. They’ve got bottled water.”
Week after week this summer, the heat has broken records from Boston to Texas to Alaska. Seattle and Portland, Ore. — not exactly hot spots — both set new daily temperature records on Tuesday, hitting 102 in Portland and 94 in Seattle. Portland was forecast to top 100 again on Thursday.
Newark got to 100 degrees or higher for five straight days last week, for the first time on record, as the heat peaked in the eastern United States on Sunday. Cities from Joplin, Mo., to Reading, Pa., to Manchester, N.H., set records.
And this month is probably the hottest July ever — following the hottest May and June — in Austin, Texas, which has tallied 47 triple-digit days so far this year.
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“After 10 o’clock, I’m inside the house,” said Paolo Pinto, 70, an Austin resident. “I have curtains, shades and fans. I don’t come out until around 7 p.m. I turn red, I get exhausted.”
The merciless Texas heat is literally moving the ground beneath people’s feet, as parched soils shift and cause hundreds of water main breaks in cities like Fort Worth. The state’s power grid, which plunged millions into freezing darkness after a 2021 winter storm, is straining to avoid rolling blackouts as demand surges.
And it’s not just the heat. Plumes of wildfire smoke are staining skies across the West. In California, the Oak fire charred more than 18,000 acres near Yosemite National Park over the past week, while Northern Arizona is grappling with a one-two punch of wildfires followed by destructive floods, which have ripped apart burned-out ponderosa forests.
In the drought-stricken Southwest, thirsty bobcats are even venturing out of the desert and into people’s backyards, searching for water.
When summer rains finally do arrive, they come in the form of record-breaking floods, like the one that devoured roads in Yellowstone National Park, or a storm that dumped two months’ worth of rain on St. Louis in just six hours. The storms in Missouri this week turned highways into canals and killed at least one person.
Not to mention that lifeguard shortages have closed pools in many cities, the resurgent threat of Covid-19 has made hanging out at the mall or movie theater an increasingly risky proposition, and you can’t even balm your woes with a Choco Taco anymore.
The most vulnerable are often older people, the homeless and low-income people who cannot afford the power bills to cool themselves, or live in apartments where landlords don’t keep air-conditioning in good repair. They have no safe quarter this summer.
In San Antonio, as a two-week heat wave — the latest in a string stretching back through June — hammered low-income residents in treeless sections of the urban core, several residents fled their sweltering apartments for a motel after their air-conditioners broke. Other residents blacked out their windows with curtains or wrapped their necks in cool towels.
“You can’t sleep, and it’s too hot to be out and about,” said Hernan Macias, 52, of San Antonio, who has tried in vain to cope by running two industrial fans at his bedside. “It feels like this is the worst summer, the hottest summer, so far.”
Even so, climate scientists warn that a decade from now, a scorching summer like this one might seem comparatively mild.
Heat waves in the United States have grown hotter, longer and more frequent over the past few decades, jumping from two per year in the 1960s to six per year in the 2010s, according to an analysis from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
The annual heat wave season has more than tripled in length to 68 days, from 22, over that same period. Extremes are spreading to many regions that are ill-equipped to deal with excessive heat, like the Pacific Northwest, where hundreds of people died in a heat wave last summer, and where temperatures soared again this week into triple digits. Homeowners in the region who once needed just a fan to stay cool are racing to install central air.
“This is a new normal, but don’t get used to it, because normal is going to get worse and worse until we rein in our emissions” of carbon from burning fossil fuels, said Kristina Dahl, a principal climate scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists, an advocacy group.
In Phoenix, America’s most sweltering big city, popular mountain trails are closed from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. on dangerously hot days. The Fire Department sends backup firefighters to relieve crews in case they overheat on calls at the height of day, when temperatures can easily touch 115 degrees.
Across the Valley of the Sun — even the name sounds oppressive on a 110-degree day — many hikers strap on headlamps in the dark, forming a glittering constellation up the sides of Phoenix’s Piestewa Peak.
Indeed, despite the misery and foreboding, this grinding summer still has the power to dazzle and surprise.
Maverick took flight again in theaters, and Bennifer rekindled a romance. Vodka-spiked Shirley Temple cocktails are the drink of the summer. And Joni Mitchell took the stage at the Newport Folk Festival, seven years after suffering a brain aneurysm, to set these words onto the breeze:
Jack Healy reported from Phoenix, and Edgar Sandoval from San Antonio. Reporting was contributed by Mike Baker in Seattle, Lauren Hard in West New York, N.J., Shawn Hubler in Sacramento and David Montgomery in Austin, Texas. Anne Barnard also contributed.