Those on the line stay smart about the heat

Chiani Reed (left), 4; George Lewis , 2; and Marcus Lewis, 4, play near an opened hydrant on West Rockland Street in Germantown. ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff
Chiani Reed (left), 4; George Lewis , 2; and Marcus Lewis, 4, play near an opened hydrant on West Rockland Street in Germantown. ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff
Posted: June 23, 2012

The official temperature was in the mid-90s, but the unofficial reading was about 200 degrees Fahrenheit on the blacktop cauldron where Steve Wilson and his colleagues were earning their pay Thursday.

"You can actually feel the heat coming off the asphalt," said Peter Scerati Jr., the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation on-site manager in charge of the road-repair crew, who would end up having an adventurous afternoon in Montgomery County.

Sun-absorbing asphalt is a prime contributor to the "heat island" effect that makes urbanized areas all the more unbearable during hot spells. And the road crew was experiencing that effect to about the nth power on the hottest day of the year so far.

At Philadelphia International Airport, the temperature reached 97 at 3:46 p.m., just two shy of the record 99, set in 1923. The humidity was a shade less ferocious than expected, but the heat index still managed to hit 100.

And yet again, the Shore didn't offer much in the way of asylum. The 96 in Atlantic City was one degree shy of the all-time high.

After one of the warmest overnights on record, the temperature will head back to the mid-90s on Friday, with a heat warning is in effect until 5 p.m. Cooling, and possibly dramatic thunderstorms, is due late in the day in advance of a splendid weekend.

While at least three deaths have been blamed on heat this year - two in Philadelphia and one in Montgomery County - none has yet been attributed to what is about to become the first official heat wave of the season.

The blistering heat was stirring up other trouble on Thursday, the first full day of summer, with the sun's power reaching its annual peak over the Philadelphia region. Camden's water supply ran out, forcing the postponement of the Riversharks game.

Out on Route 422, Scerati had his hands full.

Shortly after 2:30 p.m., heat caused a concrete stretch of the busy highway near Valley Forge National Historical Park to heave and buckle, forcing the closing of an eastbound lane and creating a significant traffic backup.

Then, at the height of the afternoon commute, yet another buckling shut down a westbound lane near the Limerick exit, about eight miles away.

Earlier, Wilson and his crewmates were making emergency repairs after a water-main break on Crooked Lane, in Upper Merion Township, a link between the expressway and Route 202.

After depositing the steaming fresh asphalt - 300 to 400 degrees, Scerati estimated - they were smoothing it with a rake and shovels. Along with making sure the work gets done, Scerati's job was to see to it that no one passed out. "You can't burn them out because somebody will collapse on you," he said.

That's why Mike Bryan, 58, of Plymouth Township, was taking a break under one of the neighborhood's precious shady spots. Bryan wasn't the most popular person in the region Thursday.

Outside of "excessive heat warning," the three most dreaded words on a hot day may be "road work ahead."

Bryan was the flagger. "They call you names," he said of the motorists. "They don't read signs. Most of them are talking on the phone." As for abuse, an occasional epithet, "other times, just hand gestures."

He said his coworkers are well aware of the power of heat. "Everyone looks out for everyone else," he said.

That evidently is a strategy adopted by other folks who have to make a living in the heat, such as roofers and trash collectors.

"We don't allow our guys to go out by themselves," said Ron Hall, a manager at Russell Roofing, which has 50 employees at offices in Oreland, Wayne, and Princeton. He said all the workers are trained in first aid and recognizing symptoms of heat distress.

At A.J. Blosenski Inc., the waste hauler based in Honey Brook, Chester County, managers drive around with coolers full of Gatorade, water and ice for the trash men, said company official Rachael Henley Farber. Plus, the workers are allowed to wear shorts.

On a day such as Thursday, the trick is to get the hot jobs done as early in the day as possible. Scerati dismissed the Crooked Lane crew at noon.

Workers such as Bryan are used to the hot-weather drill by now. Still, he says, his family worries about him.

He said that during his break, "my wife was texting me to make sure I was drinking enough water."


Contact Anthony R. Wood at 610-313-8210 or twood@phillynews.com.

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