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In One Kansas Town, Even Hotter Than Usual
Steve Hebert for The New York Times
Brad Trexler, right, and his son-in-law tending to their cattle. Farmers are considering selling early rather than feeding cows through summer.
By JACK HEALY Published: July 1, 2012
HILL CITY, Kan. — This town on the parched plains, best known for its bountiful pheasant hunting and museum of oil history, recently earned a new, if unwelcome, distinction — the center of America’s summer inferno.
For five days last week, a brutal heat wave here crested at 115 degrees. Crops wilted. Streets emptied. Farmers fainted in the fields. Air-conditioners gave up. Children even temporarily abandoned the municipal swimming pool. Hill City was, for a spell, in the ranks of the hottest spots in the country.
“Hell, it’s the hottest place on earth,” Allen Trexler, an 81-year-old farmer who introduced himself as Old Man Trexler. He spoke while standing in the shade of a tree on Saturday morning, the temperature already sneaking toward 100.
Across the country, it is the same, sweaty story. On Sunday, two million people across the mid-Atlantic were left stewing in nearly 100-degree heat with no electricity after deadly thunderstorms toppled trees and power lines. Officials warned that the high heat could fuel more severe thunderstorms this week.
“There is a significant risk of additional storms that could lead to additional outages, so there is a possibility that the situation could deteriorate in the coming days,” Gov. Bob McDonnell of Virginia said during a conference call with reporters. “This is going to be a multiday recovery event with dangerously high heat, so everyone needs to remain vigilant.”
Utility companies said it might take a week to restore power completely in some places.
Officials throughout the region opened air-conditioned libraries and community centers to provide some relief for residents without power. Grocery stores reported runs on ice, water and nonperishable foods. Harris Teeter, a regional grocery chain, quickly went through 25,000 bags of free ice it was dispensing at stores in Northern Virginia and Maryland.
In parts of Georgia and Tennessee, the air quality was so bad over the weekend that officials scrapped their Code Red warnings and dubbed the steamy haze a Code Purple, signaling very unhealthy air.
In New York, temperatures parked in the muggy 90s have baked the streets and turned subway tunnels into stifling saunas. Farmers in the Midwest are watching helplessly as ovenlike conditions blister their runty fields of corn.
And in the mountainous West, heat-stoked wildfires have charred hundreds of homes and displaced tens of thousands of people, muddying the skies and hurting summer tourism. It is so dry that many towns are canceling their Fourth of July fireworks, fearful that one dancing spark could ignite the next blaze.
In Hill City’s 115-degree heat, workers burned themselves picking up metal tools left too long in the sun. Electric and water bills shot up. Tempers frayed, and the overloaded power grid briefly blinked out in parts of town. Little League games were canceled. People’s tomatoes cooked on the vine. And Red Elliott’s phone started ringing.
An air-conditioner repairman, Mr. Elliott kept busy tending to the town’s misery. He fixed shorted wires and blown-out compressors when he could, but some homeowners ended up going to motels until a crucial replacement part arrived from Salina.
“The longer it goes on, the worse it gets,” Mr. Elliott said.
Emergency responders said there was no increase in heat-related illnesses, mostly because people just migrated to air-conditioned restaurants downtown or stayed home.
“I don’t go out unless I have to,” said Betty Delaney, 81. She was on the cusp of turning 82, and said she would spend her birthday “staying home and keeping still.”
Even the cattle know how hot it has been. In the western fringes of town, just past the sign welcoming visitors to worship at one of the local churches, wide ribbons of dry pasture unfurl, their short grasses broiled to a dusty yellow. At midday, a few Black Angus cows grazed under the sun, but most stood clustered under the cottonwoods in formations that resembled living shadows.
The grinding drought that transformed much of the West into a tinderbox has all but choked off the growing season here. Farmers say rainfall totals are five to seven inches below normal — a withering deficit — and many have not plowed under their old crops to plant new rows of wheat, corn and milo.
On Saturday, Mr. Trexler loaded three heifers into a maroon trailer and trundled them 70 miles to Oakley to sell them.
“We’re just going to have to sell,” said his son Brad, 58. “There’s no way out. Every time they take a bite of that grass, it’s gone. It doesn’t come back. There’s nothing to farm right now. Nothing will grow.”
As temperatures soared over the past week, farmers woke at dawn to haul tank after tank of water to their overheated livestock. With the grasses scorched by heat and no rain in sight, many are debating whether to sell their cows quickly, rather than buy expensive feed to sustain them all summer.
“I don’t know what do to,” Gail Hofstetter, 59, said as he ate lunch with a friend. Across the table, Rod Belleau, another farmer, offered a grim forecast.
“We’ve still got two more months of this crap,” he said.
The long-term forecast for the region seems to agree. But since its record-breaking heat wave began, Hill City has now cooled off to the mere 100s, and people have started to venture out again. And late Saturday afternoon, the skies offered their first small mercy in weeks. For a few, all-too-brief minutes, down it came, in welcome lashes: rain.