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Local workers seek relief as Hampton Roads sees near record-setting high temperatures

When workers at the Graham and Rollins crab processing plant in Hampton open the pressure cooker's steel lid, steam billows out, getting trapped beneath the metal roof and instantly raising the work area's temperature. For the workers, that can mean enduring a heat index increase of as much as 35 degrees.

Thursday's high temperature was a record-tying 99 degrees with a heat index of 106 — meaning the area around the cookers could easily have reached 130 to 140 before the steam dissipated, said owner Johnny Graham.

Blue going in, after roughly 15 minutes heaping buckets of steaming red crabs are pulled from the cooker. His shirt dripping with sweat, Efrain Baez Caiderias reached into the heat to grab the smaller baskets, backed away from the steam for a moment, then reached back in to hook larger steamer buckets onto the mechanical lift.

"The cooking is the hottest part of the process," Graham said. "This is just for a few days — as long as there's a cool-down around the corner, it's bearable."

In addition to the discomfort for workers, the heat causes challenges for the business. Crabs must be kept cool if they're to survive from the time they're harvested to the time they enter the cooker, Graham said. Crab mortality rate rises with the temperature.

Produce doesn't fare well, either.

Heidi Chafik, owner of Heidi's Homegrown and Organics, sells produce at the City Center Farmers Market every Thursday. She kept her melons in a cooler to help them last until she got to the market. Her tomatoes weren't as lucky.

"I lowered the price on tomatoes because they won't hold up as well," Chafik said. "We try to pick early — in the season and in the day — when we know a heat wave is coming. The tomatoes, they'll basically bake on the vine."

She said she doesn't get as much business on a hot day either. After last week's string of 90-plus degree days, she brought less than usual Thursday in anticipation of a slow day.

What she didn't sell by the end of the day, she said, would be fed to her chickens and pigs.

Clint Allen, who was also selling produce at the farmers market, said he tries to keep his vegetables in the shade to keep them from spoiling.

"The heat cuts down on the shelf life of things," Allen said.

As for himself, he said about 1 p.m. that he'd already gone through four 16-ounce bottles of water.

Local hospitals saw an uptick in heat-related injuries from last week's heat wave, but not on Thursday, according to Riverside Health System spokeswoman Wendy Hetman.

"We saw cases of heat exhaustion — less severe than heat stroke," Hetman said. "It's mostly people who work outside that have issues."

Although they work outside up to eight hours a day, Graham said he encourages his workers to drink water and take breaks when needed.

Newport News Shipbuilding has options for its workers who would otherwise be stuck in the heat. For those not cooled by shade and fans or air conditioning, in areas with poor ventilation or those in the direct sun, the shipyard offers liberal leave, which allows workers to go home when the weather becomes too brutal.

"We typically implement our hot weather precautions if the heat index is more than 100 in June, and more than 105 in July," spokeswoman Christie Miller said. "We want to do everything we can to keep our employees safe."

All four workdays following the July Fourth holiday were liberal leave days. Miller said an average of 500 workers took advantage of the offer each day.

People in Hampton and Newport News can seek shelter in community centers and public libraries to cool down. Hampton spokesman Fred Gaskins said the city's Community Emergency Response Team — volunteers who are trained to assist in emergencies — was asked to check on residents.

The National Weather Service heat advisory was to expire at 8 p.m. Thursday and wasn't renewed for Friday, though the high temperature is expected to be in the mid-90s, with the heat index again topping 100.

Saturday and Sunday, the weather service predicts, high temperatures will be under 90.

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