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Las Vegas bakes as heat settles on Southwest

Somehow, a car wash employee spinning a red arrow keeps dancing in the 114-degree weather. 'That's too hot, even for this town,' a meteorologist says.

July 11, 2012|By John M. Glionna, Los Angeles Times
  • Alecio Daniels advertises for a car wash in the punishing heat on a suburban street corner in Las Vegas, which had a high of 114.
Alecio Daniels advertises for a car wash in the punishing heat on a suburban… (John M. Glionna, Los Angeles…)

LAS VEGAS — Clutching his car-wash advertising sign, Alecio Daniels pranced in the punishing heat on a suburban street corner here, feeling like a chicken roasting in the oven. He eyed passing cars, the feverish air shimmering in the near distance blurring his vision.

Before the sun would mercifully vanish a few hours later, the temperature hit 114 cruel degrees, tying this city's high-temperature record for this date, set in 2003. Sweat dripping off his nose, ear lobes and bearded chin, Daniels said he had a new name for a town accustomed to sweltering in this parched desert landscape.

He calls it Las Venus.

"This is cookin' eggs in the car weather, that's for sure," he said, pouring an entire 10-ounce bottle of cold water over his head. "It's just other-worldly."

Health officials here issued a heat advisory Tuesday, warning residents to watch out for such signs of heat exhaustion as dizziness and shortness of breath — cautioning against strenuous outdoor work. It's a recommendation Daniels has mostly chosen to ignore.

The heat that has scorched the rest of the nation in recent days was finally settling on the Southwest.

It's been hot just about everywhere. As the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration noted recently, "The June temperatures contributed to a record-warm first half of the year and the warmest 12-month period the nation has experienced since record keeping began in 1895."

On Tuesday, temperatures in inland Southern California rose into the 100s, sending the lunchtime crowd scurrying for cover. Woodland Hills hit 107. Palm Springs soared to 119. In Arizona, Phoenix reached 112 degrees. And in Las Vegas, the rising mercury wilted those who scoff at temperatures below the century mark.

"People in this town have adjusted to higher temperatures," said Chris Stumps, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Las Vegas. "But once it gets up to 112 or 114, they're not used to that. That's too hot, even for this town."

In this heat, each breath becomes a hot one, making even breathing an ordeal.

Daniels does a job that on this day might seem a death wish. He's a "human directional," waving an oversized advertising arrow bearing the come-on "Dirty Car!?!," trying to direct traffic toward an adjacent car wash. Spinning his red arrow like a devil's pitchfork, the 40-year-old Daniels dances to the rap tunes on his boombox, doing acrobatics in hopes of catching motorists' eyes.

And he's doing it outside. In 114-degree heat. For hours at a stretch. "I'm too poor to run for cover today," he said. "I need the money."

While casinos beckon tourists with luxurious air conditioning and low, drowsy lighting, locals learn there are ways to beat the heat: Malls and supermarkets become crowded after sunset, when shoppers, like desert scorpions, emerge from their daytime lairs. Many homeless residents flock to special city-run cooling centers for cold water and rest.

At the children's water park fountain at Town Square mall on Las Vegas Boulevard South, shoppers — adults included — jumped into the spray with their clothes on. Tourists trudging along the Strip stuck their faces in the refreshing mist of Cool Zone fans. But the relief doesn't last.

After all, this is a place where after a particularly hot day the sidewalks can still singe the bottoms of your feet at 11 p.m., sending the uninitiated into a staccato dance of "Ow, ow, ow, ow, ow, ow." Newspapers left on the driveway become hot to the touch. And opening a mailbox can feel like reaching into a toaster. Residents often offer visitors the courtesy of a cold bottle of water — a nicety many here rarely decline.

Tuesday's 114 high was just 3 degrees shy of Las Vegas' record-high temperature of 117, set on July days in 1942 and again in 2005. Just across the state line in California, Death Valley was even worse, with temperatures on Tuesday reaching 126 degrees.

Stumps said Tuesday's date was already in the record books for reaching the highest temperature ever recorded in North America: That was 134 degrees in Death Valley, reached on July 10, 1933. The planet's highest-ever recorded temperature came in Libya, at 136 degrees.

But as the old saw goes, it's a dry heat. The humidity here Tuesday was about 4%.

"With dry heat, sweat evaporates right off your body — that allows the heat to escape," Stumps said. "But with high humidity, the moisture can't evaporate off the body and that's much more uncomfortable."

Daniels insists there's a method to his heat-defying madness. Working for $10 an hour, he tries to keep his shifts under four hours a day.

Every 10 minutes, he soaks his blue soccer jersey in water and grabs a large glass of ice water. Minutes later, the water has evaporated, and Daniels is hot again. Whenever he gets dizzy, he says, he heads for the anemic shade of a stunted nearby tree.

"You gotta have a little bit of shade or you're gonna perish," he said. "Even a little bit is better than nothing."

The worst days are like Tuesday, when the wind forsakes him. "I usually jump more, but it's just too damn hot," he said. "It's so hot I can't sleep at night, so I'm tired even before I get out here."

Daniels got a hint of the Las Vegas summer heat when he arrived by Greyhound bus from Riverside six years ago. "I got off the bus and said, 'Oh my God, please cool down.' But it rarely cools down, even at night."

Then Daniels was back at work, twirling his sign before drivers who rarely even glance in his direction — luxuriating in their air conditioning.

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