Heat wave has officials and neighbors looking out for the elderly

Millie Clarke said she preferred fans, with open doors and windows, to her air conditioner.
Millie Clarke said she preferred fans, with open doors and windows, to her air conditioner. (APRIL SAUL / Staff Photographer)
Posted: July 09, 2012

It was already 89 degrees at 10 a.m. Saturday when block captain Alice Wright began knocking on doors in the 3900 block of Pennsgrove Street. The temperature in Philadelphia would eventually climb an additional 12 degrees, to 101.

The retired day-care teacher was checking on the people she calls "my seniors," some of whom are the same age as the 70-year-old Wright.

"Geneva!" Wright yelled, bending down to call her neighbor through an open mail slot. "She's in there. She's just hard of hearing."

Wright knows her neighbors, and when the heat becomes a threat, she does what she has been doing for a decade. She takes to the streets.

The plight of the elderly as temperatures topped 100 degrees during a scorching heat wave was a major concern for city officials and neighbors who wanted to make sure the heat did not become deadly.

The deaths of two Philadelphia men found Friday in rooms with no air-conditioning were determined Saturday to be heat-related, said Jeff Moran, a spokesman for the Philadelphia Department of Health.

A 62-year-old Northeast Philadelphia man was found with no air-conditioning and with his windows closed. A 53-year-old Southwest Philadelphia man was found in an area with no air-conditioning or windows. Both died of heart disease and heat exposure.

Their deaths were the second and third in Philadelphia since the heat wave began June 28. A 70-year-old man with a history of heart disease was found dead July 1 in a Mount Airy house with windows closed and fans running.

On Saturday, the temperature hit 101 degrees at 4:15 p.m., just shy of the date's record of 103, set two years ago. The heat index reached 105.

Saturday marked the 10th day of one of the longest heat waves since the government began keeping records in 1874. An excessive-heat warning was to remain in effect until 6 a.m. Sunday.

Some relief was promised for Sunday, when forecasters predict temperatures will reach 92 degrees after possible overnight thunderstorms. Temperatures then will dip to the 80s for the remainder of the week.

Peco reported no weather-related power outages.

Atlantic City Electric and Vineland Municipal Electric were still working on restoring power to South Jersey residents who lost electricity in last week's storms. About 3,200 homes were still without power as of late Saturday.

Atlantic City Electric said it expected service would be restored by Sunday night to its 1,400 customers who still lacked power. Vineland Municipal Electric's 1,800 customers should have power by this week, the utility said.

Throughout the region, residents attempted to stay cool in swimming pools, at malls, and by relaxing under the air-conditioning at home.

For seniors coping with problems related to the heat, the Philadelphia Corporation for Aging's heat-line call center (215-765-9040) was open. Seven operators fielded calls from residents seeking information about where they could go to get cool and expressing concern about elderly neighbors they had not seen, said Jen Norman, assistant director of the Long-Term Care Access Department at the Philadelphia Corporation for Aging.

"I wish we had more calls," Norman said. "It makes me nervous when it's not ringing more."

A nurse on duty at the hotline talked to residents seeking medical help to relieve symptoms brought on by the heat. Medical teams were sent out to several homes, Norman said.

She warned against using fans with windows and doors closed, which she said creates a convection-oven effect.

Some senior centers opened for extended hours to offer the elderly a place to escape the heat.

At the Juniata Park Older Adult Center, four seniors had dropped in by 2 p.m. Sebastian Trifiro, 67, sat and watched a movie. Trifiro had walked to the center from his nearby home.

"That was a little hard," Trifiro said. "I don't have an air conditioner, but I keep my windows open, I have fans, and I stay in my cellar, where it's cool."

Four people had dropped into the South Philadelphia Older Adult Center by 5 p.m., and a few had come to the Mann Older Adult Center in North Philadelphia.

Across town in West Philadelphia, former block captain Bernice Farley, 75, checked on a few of the seniors in the 5800 block of Ludlow Street.

Farley does not have an air conditioner, but she had seven ceiling fans spinning throughout the house, and her windows were open.

"If I get too hot, I know how to go to the mall," Farley said.

She checked on Rhudell Brown, 90, who has an air conditioner, fans, and a house that was cooler than Farley's.

"So far, so good," Brown said. "I'm taking it easy."

Back on Pennsgrove Street, Wright planned to attend a block-captain meeting after checking on her seniors.

By the time she was done, Wright had seen five people, including Millie Clarke, 70, who has air-conditioning upstairs but prefers to sit sandwiched between two fans on her living-room sofa with the doors and windows open.

"Too claustrophobic," Clarke said about the cool second-floor space.

"It's hot," said Clarke, who is originally from Jamaica. "But I have my water, my wet washcloth, and I'll be sitting right here."

Contact Kristin E. Holmes

at 610-313-8211 or kholmes@phillynews.com.

Mike Newall contributed to this article.

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