Heat wave roasts US

BY LARA BRICKER | CHICAGO, IL | August 9, 2001


As residents in many areas of the country are trying to stay cool in

the midst of a sweltering heat wave, the city of Chicago is dealing

with the stifling temperatures and a stint of emergencies -- most

recently a hazardous material spill that caught fire Wednesday

morning.

Eighteen firefighters were transported to area hospitals for heat

exhaustion after they responded to an accident on the Dan Ryan

Expressway involving a tractor-trailer that had overturned and

spilled azodicarbonamide. The chemical is a carbon substance used to

make foam rubber products. The expressway was closed until Wednesday

evening.

About 25 packages of the chemical broke open and burst into flames.

Firefighters on the scene worked in shifts to lessen the potential

for heat exhaustion, but were still overcome by the boiling heat.

Drivers in the area were instructed to leave their vehicles because

of a vapor cloud from the spilled chemical, which is a flammable

substance.

About 1,500 residents in the area were temporarily evacuated, said

Jessica Miller, a spokesperson for the Red Cross. Residents were

allowed to return to their homes late Wednesday morning and no

long-term shelters were needed.

The hazardous spill comes as local relief workers are still assessing

the damage from flash floods that drove about 75 families from their

homes last Thursday. Last Friday morning, 141 people were

hospitalized after two trains from the Chicago Transit Authority

crashed into each other. Those people were hospitalized with

fractures, broken bones, back injuries, bruises, cuts and chest pains.

While the string of emergencies may seem overwhelming, Chicago Fire

Chief Dennis Gault said the department is taking it in stride. "It's

the fire department, that's the way it comes," he said. "We're at our

best when things are at their worst, unfortunately."

Firefighters responding to the spill in Chicago Wednesday were up

against tough odds, as the accident occurred in a "valley" where the

temperatures are even hotter than the rest of the area, Chief Gault

said. That coupled with the heavy and very hot gear the firefighters

wear, led to many of the firefighters suffering heat stroke. "We were

cooling them down, giving them fluids," the chief said.

Volunteers from the Salvation Army and the Red Cross were on the

scene of the spill Wednesday providing water for firefighters and

rescue workers. "The heat was tremendous yesterday," Miller said.

The hot weather that has plagued Chicago, prompting city officials to

declare a state of heat emergency, has caused a host of health

problems across the country.

In the Baltimore-Washington area, in addition to being hot and humid,

the air was deemed unhealthy as well. Thursday was the ninth day this

summer that area health officials have declared a Code Red air

pollution alert -- when ground-level ozone exceeds the federal health

standards. Just four Code Red days were declared last week.

A Code Red warning is proclaimed when the ozone levels are high

enough to potentially cause breathing difficulties and lung damage

for people working outside. The elderly, children, and those with

heart and respiratory ailments are particularly at risk.

City employees went door-to-door in Baltimore Wednesday checking on

elderly residents and fire officials opened hydrant sprinklers for

city children.

In both Baltimore and Philadelphia, bottled water has been handed out

to the homeless. While cooling centers have been opened in many

eastern U.S. cities, the Salvation Army in Philadelphia has been

actively involved in helping residents stay cool.

"We've been handing out fans on a limited basis, providing assistance

with utility bills and providing air conditioned drop-in centers for

senior citizens in local communities," said Capt. George Diaz, city

coordinator.

The First Lutheran Church of Boston is operating a free lunch program

for senior citizens, and attendance has increased this week as

seniors take advantage of the church's air conditioned facility,

according to Ingo Dutzmann, a senior pastor at the church.

The weather is being blamed for the deaths of four people this week

including a man in Michigan, a man and woman in the Philadelphia area

and another man working outside in Kentucky.

In Wisconsin, health officials believe the heat has played a role in

at least six deaths in the past three weeks, said Tom Anderson, a

spokesperson for the Wisconsin Department of Health and Human

Services. Anderson said the heat wave this summer is the worst the

area has seen since 1995. The state has issued four advisories

because of the heat since July 20, with the most recent going out

this past Monday. Since the '95 heat wave, state officials have

launched educational outreach programs across the state, with hopes

of helping those most susceptible to the heat, Anderson explained.

Missouri has had 22 heat-related deaths so far this year, according

to the Missouri Department of Health.

Forecasters predict a cold front will make it to the eastern U.S. by

Saturday, dropping temperatures into the 80's.

Meanwhile, emergency relief workers from both the Salvation Army and

the American Red Cross are continuing to assist those left homeless

by the flash floods last week in Chicago. The Red Cross sent out

1,800 clean-up kits and fielded about 850 phone calls, Miller said.

"We're helping 75 families whose primary residences (were made

unlivable by the flooding)," she said.

-- Henry Brier also contributed to this story.


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