John Summers, 69, in a drunken stupor, slept on a park bench under a tree on the Fort Lincoln Recreation Center grounds. His sister Helen Summers, 65, begged someone to call for an ambulance to get him out of the unbearable sun.
“He has an apartment, but it doesn’t have air conditioning, so he thinks it’s cooler under the shady trees. I’m afraid he will get sick,” said his sister.
Several blocks away at Georgia Avenue and Underwood Street N.W., a familiar homeless woman was given cold packs and a face mask by emergency medical professionals.
On one of Chinatown’s streets, a homeless man walked back and forth all day long. Clutching a large bottle of ginseng, he seemed to embrace the heat instead of going to a nearby cooling center. Nearly in rags, there was no indication he had bathed any time recently. Sweat poured down his face, probably into his eyes, which no doubt would react to its salty sting.
Down Seventh Street, past the Chinatown archway, where this man habitually wanders, the movie theatre display next to the Verizon Center reported a blistering 120 degrees.
Farther down the block, the suited, stylish masses dined in artificially cooled elegance at restaurants and cafés. Atop these posh establishments were expensive dwellings, where the elite could peer down at the sweating throngs. Such was Washington’s street life on one of July’s hottest days.
It was a stark reminder of the huge chasm between the District’s rich, who might be heard bemoaning the humidity, and the desperate poor, who struggled just to survive a true heat emergency.
In response to National Weather Service forecasts about the dimensions of the heat wave, the District government announced a “multi-agency heat plan” on July 20, focused on providing relief for the more vulnerable population segments, such as the elderly and mentally ill.
The “Beat the Heat” plan called for dozens of drop-in cooling centers throughout the city, in conjunction with the Department of Parks and Recreation, Department of Mental Health and other agencies, including six senior citizen recreation centers, eight shelters and 16 swimming pools, as well as the District’s 25 local libraries.
In addition, following the lead of other cities such as East St. Louis, Ill,. and Chicago, a component of the plan had the D.C. Energy Office distribute fans to poor households with very young children, seniors and persons with respiratory illness.
But people like the ginseng-drinking homeless man in Chinatown may not take advantage of these contingencies, as they are too mentally clouded to act.
“Emergency response teams often were called by onlookers to provide emergency assistance to persons in this situation who had collapsed,” said Peter Piringer, public information officer for D.C.’s Fire and EMS Department.
He continued, “We had about a 25 percent increase in calls, starting July 18, from our usual average of 425, to the following July 21, when we peaked in the mid 500s. After that, the numbers began to level off as more people stayed inside.”
As for the homeless, Piringer noted that many of them are known to local fire department units, as they hang around the same corners every day. “If they need help, our first priority is to get them to a hospital. But sometimes they refuse, so we just do what we can for them right there,” he said.
The city’s plan offered the usual advice for Washingtonians to avoid heat-related distress, including to drink plenty of fluids, wear light clothing, pace outdoor physical activities carefully, adopt a “buddy system” and to never leave children or pets unattended in cars.
Unfortunately, not everyone heeds that advice. “John went back out there the next day again, drunk and unwilling to believe that this kind of heat could kill you,” said Helen Summers about her brother.
Researcher DeRutter Jones contributed material to this story.