Heat wave blamed for 4 deaths

June 27, 2009 6:17:23 AM PDT
A steady heat wave across the central U.S. is blamed for four deaths and suspected to have factored in two others from Chicago to Texas, officials said Friday. Relief was unlikely in some parts where triple-digit highs are siphoning lakes and tormenting ranchers. Authorities say more than 80 people have been treated for heat-related illnesses this month around San Antonio, where temperatures have reached 100 degrees nine times this month. State officials say the dry conditions are comparable to what fueled a devastating run of Texas wildfires a decade ago.

The Midwest is just as heat-weary. More than 40 heat-related illnesses have been reported since Sunday in St. Louis County, where the deaths of two people are being blamed on temperatures that have settled over much of the central U.S. the past 10 days.

In Chicago, the Cook County medical examiner's office reported Friday the deaths of three people this week related to temperatures that reached into the 90s. One was a 10-year-old girl with cerebral palsy and another was a 32-year-old man working outdoors, both of whom died of heat stroke.

"This is just crazy hot," said Bob Rose, a meteorologist with the Lower Colorado River Authority in Austin. "You combine the drought with this blazing hot sunshine and it's as every bit hot as it seems."

Oklahoma upped air quality alerts and Missouri grappled with road pavement across the state buckling or blowing up under searing heat following a long, wet spring.

A high pressure system stationed over the southern U.S. for the last two to three weeks has smothered the region with dry and hot air, said Steve Smart, a forecaster with the National Weather Service near San Antonio.

San Antonio has seen less than a half-inch of rain in June, far short of the 3 1/4 inches the area usually gets. Near the state capital of Austin, Lake Travis has been losing about two feet of water each week.

Crops and fields continued to suffer in drought-ravaged parts of Texas. Rose, the meteorologist, said worried ranchers and farmers are calling about defenseless plants withering in the sun and rooted in dry dirt.

About 80 percent of dryland crops, such as sorghum, in Texas are not going to make it through the drought or will be so down they won't be worth harvesting, said Jose Pena, an economist with the Texas AgriLife Extension Service.

Texas officials also are worried about wildfires with the heat and dryness similar to 1998, when fires destroyed more than 200,000 acres and 147 homes. No major wildfires have so far been reported.

"Barring a tropical storm or a hurricane, we think parts of the state has the potential for damaging wildfires through August and maybe September," said Mark Stanford, fire operations chief for the Texas Forest Service.

A 75-year-old Missouri man was found dead Thursday in his Maplewood home, where the room temperature was 96 degrees and the air condition was not working. There also was no air conditioning in the St. Louis County home of a 62-year-old woman found dead after neighbors reported not seeing her in three days.

In Chicago, officials say a 59-year-old woman found in her home Thursday night died of heat stroke and heart problems.

An autopsy report was pending in Texas on a 37-year-old man found unconscious this week after putting up a fence on a neighbor's ranch. Heat also was suspected in the death of a 56-year-old Houston man found in his home, which was not air conditioned.

Heat stroke symptoms include high body temperature, red and dry skin, rapid pulse and loss of consciousness.

Health officials suggest avoiding caffeine and alcohol during heat waves while drinking extra water, eating frequent and small meals, and wearing lightweight, loose-fitting clothing.

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