More than 15 air-conditioned cooling centers opened across the Augusta area Monday as emergency officials and residents began to prepare for temperatures making their annual climb toward the triple digits for the start of summer.
Forecasters say it will be hot and humid for much of the week, with temperatures possibly reaching 100 on Friday. Saturday is the official first day of summer.
With thermometers hitting 95 degrees starting Wednesday, officials are urging people to stay indoors, drink water regularly and wear loose-fitting clothing.
Augusta Fire Chief Chris James said his department has yet to see a noticeable increase in dehydration calls, but Georgia Regents University reported last week that 20 percent of the 2,700 patients who visit the school’s medical center annually for dehydration are seen during summer.
“It’s looking to be kind of a midsummer-type week for Augusta, with highs in the mid- to upper 90s, which is a bit hot for this time of year,” said Mike Cammarata, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in West Columbia, S.C. “Historically, the average for Augusta is around 91 degrees for the week.”
Especially vulnerable are young athletes and senior citizens.
Dr. Richard Schwartz, the chairman of GRU’s Department of Emergency Medicine and Hospitalist Services, said the elderly are at much greater risk for dehydration because of prescriptions that include antihistamines, medications that decrease a person’s ability to sweat.
Schwartz said young athletes also require more water or fluids to remain hydrated than someone who regularly works outdoors because their bodies are not as accustomed to hot weather and as a result don’t produce as much sweat.
“If you are not used to being outside, you need to build up your tolerance first,” James said. “Wear light and loose clothing and a hat, drink plenty fluids, work at a steady pace and take regular breaks.”
Schwartz said early signs of heat exhaustion include fatigue, dizziness, heavy sweating, headache, nausea or vomiting, and cool, moist, pale or flushed skin. Emergency officials said if anyone experiences these symptoms, they should immediately get out of the sun.
Richmond County has 10 cooling centers and Columbia County has seven, many of which are equipped with handicap-accessible sitting rooms, ice water, television, transportation, and drink and snack machines.
“Senior citizens, infants and children, and people with chronic medical conditions are more prone to heat stress – and air conditioning is the No. 1 protective factor against heat related illness and death,” said Pam Tucker, the director of Columbia County Emergency Operations.
Schwartz said dehydration can lead to heat stroke, a medical condition that occurs when a person’s body temperature exceeds 104 degrees and essentially begins to shut down the neurological system, possibly resulting in seizures.
“That’s actually a very life-threatening condition that has a very high chance of a person potentially dying without medical treatment,” he said.
Through its risk management program, James said the city of Augusta has issued guidelines to employees to avoid heat stress.
He recommended that people who plan to work outside drink 16 to 20 ounces of water one to two hours before they go outdoors and more every 10 to 15 minutes thereafter. When coming back inside, he said they should consume 24 additional ounces of water.
Schwartz said people working for prolonged periods should drink fluids with electrolytes, such as Powerade and Gatorade.
“If a person is only drinking straight water, that can dilute some of the electrolytes in the blood and possible cause a drop in a person’s sodium,” he said. “It’s not only important to drink fluids, it’s important that you drink the right fluids.”