Dave Egan's rose-red face glistened with sweat as he sought out a sliver of cool shade beside his box truck in Woonsocket to escape the fast-rising morning temperatures.
Foreman of an outdoor labor crew for Providence & Worcester Railroad, Egan was working in air that made breathing seem more like inhaling a bowl of flavorless, hot soup.
Throw in the dust kicked up amid the screaming whine of an asphalt-cutting power saw, and creosote fumes that mix with perspiration to create a solution that literally burns the skin, and it added up to a scorching day at the office.
But it was more than hot yesterday — it was dangerously hot, according to the National Weather Service, which put the entire state under an excessive heat watch. That means the heat index — how hot it feels because of the combination of high temperatures and humidity — was expected to reach 105 degrees.
The heat watch, also covering parts of Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Connecticut, remains in effect through today, which is supposed to be even hotter and more oppressive than yesterday.
Forecasters blamed the conditions on a massive dome of high pressure in the upper atmosphere which was pushing hot, most air underneath it closer to the ground. The blistering bubble of air had engulfed much of the nation's midsection a few days ago, slowly moving east.
Now it's here, braising northern Rhode Island in some of the hottest, stickiest stuff of summer's saucepan so far.
“Drink plenty of water is all you can do,” says Egan. “Water and Gatorade.”
Outdoor crews like Egan's were among the hardest-hit by the heat wave, but children and senior citizens are also at high risk for heat-related illnesses, officials say.
Across the state, cities and towns responded to the threat by opening dozens of “cooling centers,” inviting senior citizens to come indoors for a spell of air-conditioned respite from the climatic crud.
“As far as I know this is one of the only places in the city you can go to get away from the heat,” said 66-year-old John McKeon as he flipped through a newspaper at the Woonsocket Harris Public Library, 303 Clinton St., one of the designated comfort zones in the city. “This is about the worst I've ever seen it.”
The Woonsocket Senior Center at 84 Social St., another cooling center in the city, is open from 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. today.
“Check on your neighbors,” the city's Emergency Management Agency counseled. “All outside work should be limited during the extreme heat of day, drink fluids to avoid dehydration.”
Keep an eye on pets, too, the EMA said. They should stay in a cool place and have access to plenty of water.
It was so comfortable at the Senior Center that seniors were doing moderate exercise without any complaints yesterday, said Director Jill Anderson.
“The Senior Center is cool enough that they are taking line dancing lessons today and moving at the usual rate,” she said. “Lots of ice water available.”
In Pawtucket, meanwhile, officials were so concerned about the heat they convened a mini-summit of sorts to draw up a game plan.
Gearing up for a possible spate of heat-related medical emergencies, the city put a third rescue squad on standby. Fees at the municipal pool in Fairlawn's Veteran's Park were waived and hours extended. Even Pawtucket's trash contractors were told to start curbside pickup earlier to avoid the searing temperatures of mid-day that are expected today, said Doug Hadden, spokesman for Mayor Donald Grebien.
“We started putting together a plan for this on Wednesday because we saw how hot it was becoming,” Hadden said.
The trash haulers usually start and 7, said Hadden. On Thursday they started at 6. Today they're getting pushed even closer to dawn – 5:30 a.m. – in an effort to make the work go smoother and more quickly, said Hadden.
Also, he said, the city is turning on the sprinklers at Slater Park from noon to 3 p.m., when children are invited to come in for a refreshing splash.
Like Woonsocket, Pawtucket also opened centers, including the Pawtucket Public Library, 13 Summer St., and the Leon Mathieu Senior Center, 420 Main St. Both are open until 9 tonight, substantially longer than usual.
Hadden said the city also deemed all the community rooms at its six housing complexes for seniors as cooling centers.
The weather service, meanwhile, predicts “a very warm start” to the day today, calling for temperatures to reach the upper 90s to around 100 degrees across much of the region. Humidity levels are expected to remain fairly stable, bringing the potential for the heat index to exceed 105 degrees.
“The combination of hot temperatures and high humidity will create a dangerous situation in which heat illnesses are possible,” the NWS said. “Know the symptoms of heat exhaustion and heat stroke. Wear lightweight and loose-fitting clothing when possible and drink plenty of water.”