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Big Swath Of U.S. Sizzles In Blazing Heat

A third day of unseasonable heat blistered the eastern half of the country Thursday, making tornado cleanup miserable in Massachusetts, sending country music fans in Tennessee to hospitals and leaving Special Olympians in Pennsylvania gulping gallons of water.

The persistent heat has been blamed for at least seven deaths from the Plains to the East Coast, where authorities prepared emergency rooms and encouraged neighbors to check on the elderly as temperatures soared above 100 in spots.

Some Northeastern schools canceled classes or closed early for a second day Thursday so students would not have to suffer with no air conditioning. Cooling centers opened in Chicago, Memphis, Tenn., Newark, N.J., and other cities as a refuge for those without air conditioning.

It hit at least 101 degrees in Newark, two degrees higher than the previous record set in 2008.

"I'd love to be indoors, but I don't make any money that way," said Jose Serrano, a landscape worker cutting lawns and trimming bushes in Toms River, N.J. "When it comes to working in these conditions, you just do what you have to do, you know?"

Nicole Connelly was visiting the Penn State Creamery in State College, Pa., with her husband and their two daughters. The temperature in the college town topped 90 degrees for the second day in a row.

"It's outrageously hot," she said. "It's more intense heat than I have ever experienced in my life. And I suffer from multiple sclerosis; and so the heat is really hard on people that have that disorder. So I've been trying to frequent places that have air conditioning."

In the Northeast, the scorching heat was forecast to subside by Friday. The National Weather Service said a weather front moving in with cooler, drier air might bring rain and force down the brutal temperatures.

"We could get showers and thunderstorms this evening, which should start a cooling trend, with increased cloud cover also helping," Calvin Meadows, a meteorological technician at the National Weather Services Baltimore-Washington Forecast Office told NPR.

Even so, the 6- to 10-day outlook from the federal Climate Prediction Center still calls for continued above-average readings centered on the mid-South, including Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, and extending as far as the Great Lakes and New York and New Jersey.

In Springfield, Mass., chain saws whirred amid high heat and humidity as workers cleared tree branches and other messes left by tornadoes that struck the area last week, killed three people and left hundreds living in shelters. The temperature hit 92 on Thursday.

As survivors sought clothing vouchers, diapers and other supplies, volunteers pressed cold water on them because many still lack electricity and thus refrigeration. Fire trucks passed out cases of water in addition to tarps for patching roofs.

Light clouds provided scant relief for the volunteers frequently seeking shade in Red Cross tents.

"The heat is certainly making it a little more impossible," said Linda-Jo Perks, co-commanding officer of the Springfield branch of the Salvation Army.

While the Northeast was expected to see some relief late Thursday as a cold front swept through with cooler, drier air, the scorching heat was to linger for days in the South. Music fans in Tennessee had that to keep in mind as three major festivals commenced.

The four-day Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival began Thursday, with 80,000 general admission tickets sold for the event being held on a 700-acre farm about 60 miles southeast of Nashville. In Chattanooga, 600,000 people are expected over nine days at the Riverbend Festival.

Alberta Kelly of New Brunswick attended her first County Music Association Festival Thursday in Nashville, Tenn. After arriving, she promptly went shopping for sunglasses. The temperature was in the 90s.

"I wasn't prepared for this at all," she said. "It hit me pretty hard when I got off the plane. I also got sunburned."

Vanderbilt University Medical Center spokesman Jerry Jones said Thursday that about 50 people at the CMA fest were treated Wednesday, about half for heat-related conditions. Ambulances took three to hospitals.

In Paterson, N.J., Dr. Mark Rosenberg of St. Joseph's Hospital said more than a dozen patients were treated there Wednesday for heat-related illnesses.

Authorities have blamed the heat for deaths of seven people in Tennessee, Maryland, Wisconsin and Missouri in recent days. Officials on New York's Long Island reminded people to check on their relatives and friends, especially the elderly.

Outdoor activities challenged residents in the Northeast, where extreme heat this early in the season — summer's official beginning is still more than a week away — is rare.

With temperatures soaring above 90 in Concord, N.H., the recreation department canceled a fitness class held each week in White Park.

Andrea Wilson enjoyed the playground and the duck pond with her two young daughters as a few people lunched at shaded picnic tables at an otherwise deserted park.

"It's getting a little bit hot," Wilson said. "It's nice to come and have the breeze off the pond and let the kids go to the playground and get in a little bit of shade under the trees over there.

"But it is hot, very hot," she said. "But they don't mind."

At the outdoor track at Penn State University in State College, Pa., Special Olympians made a beeline for blue 5-gallon water buckets before afternoon activities at the Franklin County games had even started. Down the street and around the corner, an electronic marquee flashed a temperature of 93 degrees.

No sweat, said Brittany Brumbaugh, 20, who was taking part in the mini-javelin and long jump events Thursday.

"It don't bother me a bit," said Brumbaugh, the front of her green shirt wet after playfully throwing a cup of water on a teammate who had bumped into her. "Just drink a lot of water."

At a temporary petting zoo set up at the Olympics, Jennifer Zajaczkowski kept watch on a llama, two goats and Fern, the sheep — sheared the day before to keep cool.

"Yesterday, she was panting so bad that I actually was sponging under her armpits," Zajaczkowski said.

A heat emergency was issued in Cincinnati, where fans of the Reds and the Chicago Cubs tried to stay cool at Great American Ball Park. Kathryn Burke, of Pikeville, Ky., wore a straw hat and brought two bottles of frozen water and a mister.

"And I brought the knowledge to leave when I've had enough of the heat," she said.

Detroit's municipal power system failed Thursday, forcing the evacuation of city hall and knocking out traffic lights in much of the downtown. High energy use was a suspected culprit even though temperatures had tapered to the 70s after two days above 90.

Severe thunderstorms were forecast to accompany the arrival of cooler weather in the Northeast — a prospect that bothered some storm-rattled residents of central Massachusetts more than the heat. A line of thunderstorms that passed through Wednesday night had many Springfield residents worrying it was another tornado.

"I was thinking it may happen again," Sandra Alexander said. "If it does I hope they sound the alarm. Last time we didn't have much warning."

While it is early for such high temperatures, veteran roofer Tony Kozlik, working on a brick apartment building in Springfield, Mass., that lost its roof in the tornado, spoke from experience when he said it was bound to happen sooner or later: "I've worked through hot summers and cold winters since 1978."

If scientists are right, people had better get used to sweltering temperatures. A new study from Stanford University predicts that global climate change will lead permanently to unusually hot summers by the middle of the century.

With reporting from Emily Reddy of member station WPSU, Blake Farmer of member station WPLN in Nashville and Kurt Gwartney of member station KGOU in Oklahoma City. Material from The Associated Press was used in this story.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

NPR Staff and Wires