July 30, 2009 -- Extreme weather is sweeping through virtually all corners of the United States today -- including a record heat wave in the typically cool Northwest, while heavy rains and unexpected tornadoes continue to lash the Northeast.
Today promises to be another day of 100-degree weather for parts of Washington and Oregon, where it's never been warmer. The heat wave broke more than half a dozen records Wednesday.
Among them was a staggering 103 degrees in Seattle, 104 in Olympia and 96 in Bellingham.
Temperatures across Oregon and Washington state have been as high as 20 degrees above normal. Forecasters say temperatures will remain above average into early next week.
In Portland, Ore., Wednesday, people tried to keep zoo animals and themselves cool. Portland's 106-degree temperature fell just one degree short of the record set in 1981.
Unrelenting Rain Pummels Northeast U.S.
Parts of the Northeast continue to be hammered by wind and rain, and it could continue through the weekend, raising the possibility of flooding. New York City's Central Park has recieved three times the normal amount of rain for July, according to the National Weather Service.
In Stroudsburg, Pa., a tornado with winds between 111 and 135 miles per hour brought down trees and left 10,000 people without power.
A funnel cloud in New Jersey also downed trees and power lines, and was strong enough to take a roof off of a home.
Severe thunderstorms also descended on the Midwest Thursday morning from Oklahoma City, Okla., to Dallas and Waco, Texas. That system will bring more rain to the East Coast this evening.
Power Concerns for the Overheated West
The Northwest is normally a refuge for vacationers seeking relief from stewing summer heat, but not this week.
KOMO-TV meteorologists had attributed the heat wave's staying power to a high pressure ridge in the region and a strong lower pressure system to the west that prevents Pacific winds from cooling the coast.
The last two times the Northwest experienced systems similar to the one currently cooking the region were 1977 and 1981, two of the longest heat waves on record.
Soaring Temps Strain Power Providers
Record-setting temperatures like these, and the staying potential of a lasting heat wave quickly begin to raise health and utility concerns.
The Bonneville Power Administration, which supplies hydro-electric power throughout the Pacific Northwest from the base of the Columbia River Basin, set its all-time summer peak power consumption record Tuesday, supplying about 8,100 megawatts of power to the Northwest alone. The figure busted the previous record, set during the 2006 heat wave, by 600 megawatts.
High nighttime temperatures have added strain to the power grid, preventing it from recuperating overnight. But BPA does not expect a power shortage, as bearable weather conditions in Northern California have prevented power consumption from spiking too high.
"The thing that is easing the stress is California," said Michael Milstein, a BPA spokesman. "The '06 heat wave included California, which put a lot more strain on the system."
Pacific Northwest Heat Wave Causes Health Concerns
The effects of power outages during a sustained heat wave could potentially be deadly. Though there have been few reports of heat-related illness thus far, and no reports of death, public health officials are still being cautious.
Cooling centers have been established across the area, mainly in churches, community centers and nursing homes. Many specify "Seniors Only" service, though the dangers affect people of all ages.
A list of Portland-area cooling centers can be found through KATU here.
Compounding the heat problem is the fact that air conditioning is not found in the typically cool, wet Northwest as frequently as it is in other regions of the country.
"The thing about a place like Portland is there are some buildings and residences that don't have air conditioning," Andy Bryant, a hydrologist with the National Weather Service, told the AP. "You go to Phoenix or Dallas, yes, it would be very hot there, too, but they have more of a system in place to deal with it."