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Heat a hazard, but this family escaped worse

Before 1 p.m., the air in Cynthia King's rented Kensington home already felt hot and soupy, and it was just Day One of an early June heat wave beginning to blanket the area.

Siblings Delores and Dan King, who left New York gang threats to live in Philadelphia, try to keep cool. (Jonathan Wilson/Inquirer)
Siblings Delores and Dan King, who left New York gang threats to live in Philadelphia, try to keep cool. (Jonathan Wilson/Inquirer)Read more

Before 1 p.m., the air in Cynthia King's rented Kensington home already felt hot and soupy, and it was just Day One of an early June heat wave beginning to blanket the area.

Flies had come in when she opened the front door to get some relief in the morning, and she ran out of Raid two days ago. She has no air-conditioning at the two-story house in the 2000 block of East Clearfield Street, and the few ceiling fans don't help much, she said.

Nine of her 10 children, ages 5 to 19, were running back and forth from the kitchen to the front yard with water-filled glasses, soda bottles and gallon jugs, dousing one another to alleviate the heat.

"We've got to get a hose," said King, 37, at times wiping her face with a tissue, as the parade of youngsters ran by, drip, drip, drip.

But hoses, air conditioners and window fans weren't first on the family's list of needs when it fled a gang-infested neighborhood in Brooklyn, N.Y., a month ago and came to Kensington, where King's sister lives. The family got living-room furniture just last week, courtesy of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul.

As this weekend's hazardous heat and humidity descends on the region, low-income families such as the Kings face an especially hard struggle. And as difficult as the Kings' situation may seem, families with no electricity - some of whom lost service in recent weeks in a crackdown on delinquent payments - will have it a lot worse.

"There are people without access to fans, refrigeration, people who probably almost have to abandon their house and live with someone else because refrigeration is pretty essential in the summer," said Jonathan Stein, general counsel for Community Legal Services, which represents and advocates for low-income people.

No heat-related deaths or major health incidents were reported in the region yesterday. A high of 94 degrees was reached in Philadelphia.

Today and tomorrow, temperatures are forecast to hit the mid- or high 90s, and it should feel even hotter. If so, the weather may seem as steamy as last summer's hottest day, Aug. 8, when the 97-degree high felt like 105, said Tony Gigi, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service office in Mount Holly.

Relief is not expected until Tuesday night, and only in the form of a weak cold front.

"It's not going from the outhouse to the penthouse," Gigi said. "It's more like going from the outhouse to the first floor."

What does a spring heat wave portend for summer?

Based on statistics and history, the likelihood is a hotter-than-normal summer, the meteorologist said.

An excessive-heat warning kicked the heat help line of the Philadelphia Corporation for Aging into action yesterday, and it will continue to operate today.

Chris Gallagher, the line's director, said caller volume yesterday was higher than expected, possibly because the heat got so much advance attention. Between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m., the line received 83 calls.

But none of the calls involved serious health-related complaints. It usually takes two or three days of hot weather before those come in, Gallagher said.

Instead, the call-takers dispensed advice on how to stay safe and feel a bit more comfortable. The service, however, has its limits.

"Unfortunately," Gallagher said, "a lot of people think the heat line is there to provide fans."

Even without a heat wave, King said, her family has found warm nights difficult, especially in the second-floor bedrooms, because her house seems to hold the heat.

"Some nights it was so hot in here that we had to go downstairs and sit outside or open up the door, because it was cooler outside than it was in the house," she said.

Delores, 11, said she couldn't sleep when it was hot. Other children said they didn't mind the heat.

"When you run outside, a cool breeze comes and cools you down," said U-Allah, 9, who wiped the sweat from his face with a napkin.

King said her family had begun to fall on hard times in 2006, when her husband died and a fire damaged her apartment. Then gang members began flashing guns in the neighborhood, she said.

"The kids were sitting on the stoop eating an Icee, and guys came and pulled a gun on them," she said. "That was the last straw."

King said she knew it would be hard leaving the city she had grown up in, but has found her Kensington neighborhood welcoming. So the heat, she said, is bearable.

She and her children take turns in the shower throughout the night. She takes four showers a day, she said. King also gets up during the night to wipe the faces and feet of her youngest children with a rag to keep them cool, she said.

Lots of ice water also helps, although it's difficult to keep the trays full, she said.

They leave the front door open until they go to bed. Yesterday, that wasn't until 3 a.m. because of the heat.

King said she was looking for a job as a home health aide or nurse's aide. Her oldest daughter was out looking for a job yesterday afternoon, she said. The family has applied for aid and in the meantime is getting by with help from her sister, St. Vincent's, and Visitation Blessed Virgin Mary Church, she said.

Sister Linda Lukiewski of Visitation said that in the past a city program had given out air conditioners, but that they weren't available this year.

Fans and air conditioners will have to wait, King said.

"Like I told the children, it's a process. We just moved here, and it's going to take a little time to get things in order."

Heat Wave

The National Weather Service has issued an excessive-heat warning until tomorrow night. Temperatures are expected to hit the mid- or upper 90s today and tomorrow, with a heat index of 100 to 105 degrees. Evening lows in the low or mid-70s are predicted.

For heat-beating tips and help with heat-related health concerns, call the Philadelphia Corporation for Aging's help line at 215-765-9040. A free service of Philadelphia's lead senior-services agency, the help line takes calls from throughout the region.