D.C. Heat : Californians Sweat It Out in the Summer Humidity of the Nation’s Capital


It’s during the summer that Los Angeles native Amadie Hutner longs most for the cool breezes of the Pacific Coast, those oppressive months of July and August when the heat and humidity turn the nation’s capital into a sauna with scenic monuments.

She feels it even on her morning walks to the subway, when the new-day heat wrings out its moisture like a wet sponge--the sweat beading on her brow, trickling down her stomach and legs, stinging her eyes, ruining her clothes, driving her to think of cooler things, like squinting surfers catching a wave off Malibu.

Anywhere but here.

“Summer’s heat is a disgusting fact of life in Washington,” said Hutner, a 24-year-old legislative aide to Rep. Anthony C. Beilenson (D-Woodland Hills). “You try to beat it. You use super-absorbent deodorant. You carry around little towels to mop the sweat. You hold your clothes away from your body to create a breeze. But the humidity, it always wins.”


One wise-cracking legislative intern from California recently set out to prove just how hot a Washington summer can get: He tried to fry eggs on the sidewalk outside the Capitol.

“He insists they fried,” said Rob Stone, a Pacific Palisades resident and Washington intern for Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Los Angeles). “But nobody else was there to verify it. It was too hot to go outside.”

For Californians spending the summer in the District of Columbia--whether working on Capitol Hill, doing personal business or playing tourist--talk inevitably turns to the steamy force of nature locals have strangely come to accept without question: The crazy heat and overbearing humidity that can tap a quart of sweat an hour.

Throughout inland Southern California--including the San Fernando Valley--summer temperatures soar. But here in Washington, the added element of brutally high humidity can be devastating, especially in this pedestrian-laden city.

It’s a heat that makes you want to sit on the back veranda and sip mint juleps. Or invade a small nation. The humidity makes you immediately hot under your tie-festooned collar as you leave the cool marble and air-conditioned confines of the Library of Congress.

On the hottest days, when temperatures top 100 degrees, the weather plants its uninvited wet kiss--making you feel sorry for pregnant women and people on crutches, for the homeless spread out like puddles of sweat in city parks. You pity those poor courier devils darting through city traffic, their bicycle tires sticking to a sea of hot street tar-turned-black-glue by the heat.


“Soupy is the word I use for the heat,” said Jonathan Blaes, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service. “The air is so full of moisture and junk, it’s like walking in an atmosphere of soup. It’s hot as hell here. Literally.”

A local newspaper once listed 32 ways to ignore the heat, including: No. 2--Hole up in a catacomb. No. 21--Steal some kid’s inflatable pool. No. 32--Walk like a penguin. And No. 28--Hypnotize yourself with a snowstorm paperweight.

Indeed, summer reminds you that Washington is indeed a Southern city, one that assumes a tropical character come July. It’s Bombay without the monsoons, a place where even jungle animals at the local zoo, used to unbearable humidity, demand a cool midday respite.

Each day the scene is repeated: Grandmothers from Illinois or Iowa pass out on some sidewalk from the heat, their grandsons fanning them like ringside boxing managers.

And it’s only on the hottest days that the subway escalators break down, forcing the grumbling crowds to walk stairways 10 stories tall. “I know it’s hot,” one Reseda mother scolded her young son, yanking him along by the hand. “And complaining isn’t going to make it any cooler. So just shut up.”

In the heat of the night, mosquitoes work the crowds milling about the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial, making them swing and curse at the dive-bombing insects. And unlike California, darkness brings no relief from the day’s inferno.


It’s a Washington decidedly at odds with its postcard image.

“When the humidity is 100% and it’s not raining, you know you’re in trouble,” said Jean Smith, a Washington native and chief of staff for Rep. Howard L. Berman (D-Panorama City).

To make matters worse, Washington wags say, the temperature is always 10 degrees hotter when Congress is in session “with all that hot hair blowing down from Capitol Hill.”

Some say the Washington heat has changed the course of history.

During the summers before air conditioning, Congress and anyone else with means would flee muggy Washington, a city built mostly on marshy, low-lying land.

“The government shut down during the summer because of the humidity,” said Don Kennon, chief historian at the Capitol Historical Society. “The reason that Congress takes its annual recess during August is a holdover from those times.”

Modern times have not eased the heat’s effects on politicians.

In 1981, former Egyptian President Anwar el-Sadat felt the discomfort. “Because of the oppressive heat and humidity of Washington in the summer, I found myself longing for the cool breezes of our own Alexandria,” he wrote.

“This may sound strange coming from an Egyptian, used to heat, but the climate in Washington during August is really unbearable. Some people who saw me on television may have noticed that I had to change my suit before I left the White House because I was sweating so profusely.”


Because of the heat, British foreign diplomats once considered Washington a secondary post to Bombay, and until recently the government offered hardship pay for diplomats working here.

British embassy press secretary Peter Bean likens Washington to Thailand, where he spent four years: “In Thailand, I always walked very slowly and looked for the shade. I find myself doing the exact same thing in Washington.”

Like other congressmen, Rep. Howard P. (Buck) McKeon (R-Santa Clarita) knows how to beat the summer heat: He doesn’t go outside.

“There’s a tunnel under the Capitol we use to get around,” he said. “One freshman Congresswoman recently said the heat had literally driven her underground. She used the tunnel so much she didn’t get any fresh air for a week.”

Mickey Pollock, 23, a San Diego native and legislative aide to Rep. Carlos J. Moorhead (R-Glendale), never thought she’d be so happy with a 9-to-5 job that keeps her indoors all day.

“The summer months are constantly sticky,” she said. “By the time you get to work, your makeup has melted off and you don’t even feel like you took a shower. So you say, ‘Why bother?’ You just go around feeling disgusting.”


David Jorgenson, Moorhead’s chief of staff, thought he was trading L.A. smog for Washington heat when he came here in 1979. Instead, he got both--arriving to find a brown haze over the Capitol, a humidity that made it impossible to dry off after a morning shower.

“I stopped going to church because of the heat,” he said. “I just couldn’t bear the idea of being in a suit on a muggy Sunday morning.”

Robert Cochran, chief of staff for McKeon, followed his boss to Washington two years ago--then faced the daunting task of moving his reluctant wife from Covina, where both she and Cochran had lived all their lives.

To make matters worse, they picked a steamy July weekend last summer to go house-hunting here.

“We drove around in a miserable heat that provided more ammunition for me to use against Washington,” recalled Kellie Cochran. “But Bob wanted me so desperately to live here, he would have said anything to make me like the place.

“So he ignored the humidity. It was like ‘Me sweating? No, honey, I’m not sweating.’ But I’ve found that if you have a positive mind-set, the heat is tolerable. The more you sweat, the better it is for your pores. You lose weight. It’s like having a sauna without going out and buying one.”


The heat has taught Amadie Hutner some valuable lessons: Don’t buy satin blouses that melt in the humidity. On the hottest days, catch a matinee. And take a cab--forget the sweaty subway.

At those weekend softball games, do what Hutner and her friends are planning to do: Put together a block of ice and a portable fan and you’ve got instant outside air-conditioning.

She has advice for anyone planning to brave the nation’s capital and its big-dog days of summer: “Force yourself to get outside. You can’t let the heat stop you. Otherwise, in this city, you’d spend your entire life indoors.”