August 1, 2006

Deadly heatwave moves east across United States

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Parts of eastern United States prepared on Tuesday for a potentially deadly heatwave with the mercury forecast to top 100 degrees Fahrenheit (38 Celsius) but power grid operators assured demand could be met.

The heatwave is moving across the country from California, which has just suffered through more than two consecutive weeks of triple-digit temperatures that killed at least 126 people and caused power failures.

Meteorologists also forecast 100 degrees Fahrenheit in Detroit, St. Louis and Chicago on Tuesday and temperatures that would top 100 degrees in Philadelphia and Washington on Tuesday and Wednesday.

The National Weather Service, or NWS, issued excessive heat warnings and said the heat index -- how hot it actually feels when the humidity is combined with the air temperature -- was due to hit 115 degrees Fahrenheit (46 C) in New York on Wednesday.

"If people do not take precautions we could be looking at a significant number of fatalities," said NWS Warning Coordinator Meteorologist Gary Conte, adding that New York City had not suffered such a string of hot temperatures since July 1999.

"The forecasted temperatures and heat indices (in 1999) were pretty close to what we're looking at now. The impact from that event resulted in 43 deaths in New York City and New Jersey with rolling blackouts, buckled roads and so forth."

Conte said the last time temperatures topped 100 degrees in Central Park and on Long Island was on August 9, 2001, while Newark, New Jersey, last suffered 100 degree heat on August 13, 2005.

New York City has opened air conditioned "cooling centers" for people to take refuge in and extended hours at public swimming pools, while urging the public not to open up fire hydrants.

Electricity grid operators did not expect they would have to institute rolling blackouts, which are aimed at preventing uncontrolled outages, due to any lack of generating capacity.

However, in some regions power distribution cables could fail, like those which recently left 25,000 Con Edison customers in New York without power for as long as week.

New York suffered through the worst blackout in North American history and lost as much as $1 billion in August 2003 when the city, the most populous in the United States with 8 million people, was without power for 29 hours.

The cascading outages also left up to 50 million people in Ontario and eight U.S. states in the dark.

(Additional reporting by Scott DiSavino)