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Southwest Under a Killer Sun

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

The dog days of summer piled on early and lethally in the Southwest, unleashing a torrid hot spell that reached record levels on Wednesday and has resulted in the deaths of nearly 50 people.

In Dallas, where a 16th resident succumbed to the 100-plus-degree heat since mid-May, officials declared a health emergency and pleaded with the elderly to seek shelter after nine straight days of triple-digit temperatures.

“People need to take this heat seriously,” said Betty Culbreath, director of the Dallas County Department of Health and Human Services. “We just don’t want to lose any more lives.”

Torpor turned deadly Wednesday for 84-year-old Evelyn Marshall, who would not budge from her sweltering home or even turn her window air-conditioner unit on. The Dallas County medical examiner’s office said Marshall was the latest victim of the smothering heat that has killed eight people there since temperatures rose to 110 degrees on Sunday.

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Marshall, who apparently suffered from heart disease, was felled by hyperthermia. The temperature registered in the mid-90s in her bedroom, said Charles Gaylor, a medical examiner’s agent. “She had a window unit, but apparently would not use it because it gave her a headache,” he said.

Already besieged in recent weeks by an arid, unseasonably hot climate that has triggered drought conditions on north Texas and Oklahoma farms, Dallas’ heat assault is most dangerous for seniors, who were urged to abandon the oven-like conditions of stifling apartments and houses and find their way to city-run, air-conditioned “cooling shelters.”

Culbreath said a hotline had been set up to direct people to shelters and provide other assistance.

“All my plants at home have died. I’m so weak, and I’m a diabetic,” said 78-year-old Annie Dennis, who fled Tuesday to the air-conditioned Charities Center in Dallas with about 100 others. Her air-conditioning unit at home is dead. “It’s like you’re going into a steam room,” Dennis said.

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The warnings to Dallas’ seniors echoed lessons that Chicago officials learned three years ago, almost to the week, when repeated 100-degree days and brutal humidity readings struck down elderly residents by the scores.

Nearly 700 Chicagoans died of heat-related heart attacks and other ailments in a single mid-July weekend in 1995--a raw memory that led an angry Mayor Richard M. Daley to react with outrage recently when Chicago electric utility officials warned of likely heat-induced “rolling blackouts” this summer that could again put some residents in jeopardy.

Temperatures in Chicago hovered in the high 80s Wednesday as Commonwealth Edison officials began asking energy consumers to comply with a new plan to voluntarily shut off power on days when usage levels skyrocket.

But the Southwest was in the worst straits. And Dallas was directly in the heat’s cross-hairs.

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“I don’t ever remember it being this hot,” said a 32-year-old postal worker, sagging under a satchel of mail. “I can hardly move.”

Heat and high humidity were a suffocating combination in Houston, where propriety took a back seat to comfort. At the Wavelength hair salon, three women in business suits made a beeline for the changing room, each hopping on one foot and peeling off their pantyhose as fast as they could.

“I don’t blame them. It’s too hot to wear pantyhose in this weather,” said a sympathetic hairdresser, Trish Herrera.

The heat wave extends from California into Colorado and eastward over the Deep South. At least 23 people have died in Texas, six in Oklahoma and 20 in Louisiana since mid-May. Many victims already had heart disease or another medical condition. In Texas, 10 of the dead were older than 60, and all but four died in homes where air conditioners were broken or turned off.

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Meteorologists hold out little hope for a sudden end to the heat wave, the worst to settle in over Dallas and Fort Worth since the summer of 1980--when temperatures hit 100 degrees on 69 days and 20 people died.

The Southwest’s baking clime is blamed partly on drought conditions that persist in much of Texas. “We should have seen more rainfall in the spring,” said Rolan Nunez, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Fort Worth. “There just hasn’t been enough rainfall to cool things down.”

Farmers and ranchers are girding for $1.5 billion in losses. “Now we know that any way you cut it, the cotton crop is a complete wash,” said Roland Smith, a researcher at the Texas Agricultural Extension Service.

Spiraling temperatures extended into Florida, where the wildfires that spread out of control for weeks have been all but extinguished. Damage from the fires that burned nearly 500,000 acres since Memorial Day is estimated to exceed $390 million.

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Humidity, heat and intermittent storms have hovered over most of that state. But drought conditions were reported in sections of the Florida Panhandle, west of Tallahassee, and high temperature records were shattered in a band across the state’s midsection, in Tampa, Orlando and Melbourne.

A separate weather system was expected to drive up the heat in California. Forecasters predicted highs of 105 to 110 degrees in the San Fernando and San Gabriel Valleys by Sunday and Monday. The downtown Los Angeles high was expected to be in the 90s.

Experts said that during the last two days, an area of upper-level high pressure centered over southern Nevada with unusually warm temperatures had gained enough strength to begin to affect California and the rest of the western United States.

Hart reported from Houston and Braun from Washington. Times staff writer Mike Clary reported from Miami and researcher John Beckham from Chicago.

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