NEW YORK (AP) — The official start of summer brought temperatures in the high 90s to the Eastern Seaboard on Wednesday, setting records in some spots and getting awfully close in others, with people wilting at graduation ceremonies, students trying to learn in sweltering classrooms and authorities warning folks to check on elderly neighbors.
The hot spell arrived right on time — on the longest day of the year — in a region that's home to some of the nation's most densely populated cities. Record temperatures were recorded at all three New York City-area airports, along with Connecticut's Bradley International Airport and the cities of Burlington, Vt., and Houlton, Maine, according to the National Weather Service.
Health officials across the Northeast warned residents to drink water, stay out of the sun and in air conditioning, and to check on elderly neighbors and pets. Public cooling centers were set up in dozens of cities for those without air conditioning.
Several relatives of high school graduates were treated for heat exhaustion at an outdoor ceremony in North Bergen, N.J., and taken to a hospital. Ambulances were on standby at the event, which was held outside to accommodate about 5,000 people, said Capt. Gerald Sanzari of the North Bergen Police Department.
A similar scene took place in New Britain, Conn., where several people were taken to a hospital after suffering heat-related symptoms while attending the New Britain High School graduation. Captain David Koscuk of the New Britain EMS told the New Britain Herald that 24 people suffered from heat exhaustion or fainting and half of them were taken to area hospitals.
In Howell, N.J., school officials made Wednesday the last day of the school year instead of Thursday, citing the heat. And at nearby Wall High School, people attending the graduation ceremony were able to watch a remote broadcast inside the air-conditioned building.
According to the weather service, it hit 94 degrees at New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport, passing the 93-degree mark set in 1995. The 98-degree temperatures at LaGuardia Airport and Newark Liberty International Airport passed records set in 1953, when highs reached 96 at LaGuardia and 97 at Newark.
In New England, the mercury hit 97 degrees at Bradley airport in Hartford, Conn., breaking the 1995 record of 96 degrees. Record temperatures were also seen in Burlington, Vt., and Houlton, Maine, which reached 95 degrees and 90 degrees, up from 94 and 89.
Even places that didn't break records were extremely hot. In Washington, the airports topped out at 98, one degree shy of setting new heat marks. The mercury in Philadelphia rose to 97 degrees, one degree short of the record set in 1931.
"You're talking about almost 15 degrees above normal," said Kristin Kline, a weather service meteorologist in Mount Holly, N.J.
Every state in the Lower 48 except for North Dakota was forecast to have 90-degree weather until Saturday, according to a model by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the agency in charge of weather, climate and oceans.
Mail carrier Connie Vincent was already sweating as she began her rounds in a residential neighborhood in Manchester, Conn., Wednesday morning.
"There's nothing you can do," she said as she dabbed her face with wet washcloths. "Tomorrow's my day off, thank God. I've just got to make it through today."
Some people in Boston headed to Malibu Beach, a harbor beach south of downtown, to try to beat the heat.
Retired teacher Mary O'Brien sat on a bench, armed with a bottle of water and a magazine, enjoying the afternoon as a breeze came off the saltwater. But Genesis Langham, 38, said heading to the waterfront with a family friend and her sons, ages 6 and 1, wasn't the best idea.
"If your goal is to stay cool, stay inside," she said.
In a rare bending of the rules, the Metro in Washington, D.C., said passengers on Wednesday and Thursday would be allowed to drink water, an exception to their no-drinks policy.
Deborah Otchere, 59, mapped out a tree-lined route to work and brought a change of clothes to her job as a secretary in a Washington law firm. Among her traveling supplies was a partially frozen bottle of water.
"You live here long enough, you know how to prepare," she said.
More than 450 cooling centers were being opened around New York City, which is under a hot weather advisory. Mayor Michael Bloomberg encouraged people without air conditioning to seek out the cooler spaces or visit the city's beaches.
The city's 1.1 million public school students are still in session for another week, and just 64 percent of classrooms are air-conditioned. The city is leaving it up to teachers and administrators to monitor the situation in each school, Bloomberg said.
"There's nothing unsafe about it. It may be a tiny bit uncomfortable, but these are young, strong people, and we're not going to ask anybody to stay in a building where we think it becomes dangerous," he said.
In downtown Providence, R.I., at the central bus terminal, a worker for the Salvation Army — red-faced and hot herself — was handing out free bottles of water, reminding people to stay hydrated. Users of public transit were enjoying free service on buses and trolleys, offered on days when health officials declare air quality to be unhealthy and driving is discouraged.
On New York's Long Island, Roy Gross, chief of the Suffolk County SPCA, cautioned against keeping pets in vehicles, noting temperatures can reach 120 degrees within minutes.
"Your pet can quickly suffer brain damage or die from heatstroke when trapped in these high temperatures," Gross said.
In Manhattan's Washington Square Park, women and small children took off their shoes to wade in a fountain. But the main attraction was a promotion by Nestle to give away a free ice cream cone to anyone who would do the hula hoop.
Tiny tourist Katie Phan, visiting New York with her family from Orange, Calif., joined several dozen people who took the frozen-treat bait. The 8-year-old expertly spun three hoops — and munched on a melting cone — all at once. It made her mother Terry proud.
"I had no idea she could do that," she said.
Contributing to this report were Associated Press writers Jessica Gresko in Washington, Patrick Walters in Philadelphia, Frank Eltman in Garden City, N.Y., Karen Matthews, Samantha Gross, Tom Hays, Deepti Hajela and Verena Dobnik in New York City, Mary Esch in Albany, N.Y., Stephen Singer in Hartford, Conn., Dave Collins in West Hartford, Conn., Erika Niedowski in Providence, R.I., and Shannon Young and Bridget Murphy in Boston.