Weathering the Bayou City It’s not the heat … it’s the futility
THE CAFÉ – Clear skies, low humidity, a slight breeze and a wonderful temperature. For Houstonians, it’s a good time for driving around with the convertible top down or dining al fresco. Yes, it’s perfect on both days of the year. That’s because we seem to go from winter to summer and back again with a 24-hour turnaround between the seasons. Maybe I’m overstating the obvious just a bit, but our springs and falls don’t last long here. In April, we had some chilly nights. Now it is May, and the a/c is on.
As we sit here in the outdoor café to sip our wine and watch the trains hit the cars, we should look at our local weather. Why not? Everyone else does. When you are out of town, whenever you mention that you are from Houston, the listener inevitably asks: “How do you stand the heat?” That is followed by, “How do you stand Tom DeLay?” and finally, “How does Tom DeLay stand the heat in the kitchen?”
Let’s stick with the weather. On average, we have 21 days a year when it freezes, which I don’t believe. Isn’t it more like six? The record low around here was 5 degrees set on Jan. 23, 1940, at Hobby Airport. The record low at Bush Intercontinental is 7 degrees set on Dec. 23, 1989. Looking at the high side, on average we have 95 days a year when the thermometer reaches 90 degrees or more. We rarely get to 100, nevertheless the record high temperature is 109 degrees set at Bush on Sept. 4, 2000.
We must agree that on rare occasions we have a little rain. Actually, we receive rain of some measure 103 days a year on average and thunderstorms on 64 days. Our heavy dews usually total 47.84 inches a year. That’s more rain than falls on Seattle. June 2001 was our wettest month (19 inches). Why? In a soggy word: Allison. Our wettest single day? On Aug. 27, 1945, 14.58 inches of rain fell on Hobby Airport, and the official one-day record still stands. We have had 14 measurable snowfalls since 1939, which is something to appreciate. Even under normal weather conditions, Houston drivers are suicidal. Add a snowfall, and our streets become one big destruction derby. Some cities can tell when the seasons change because, well, they really change and stay changed. But not in Houston. How many times have you cleaned out your wood-burning fireplace because winter has gone only to light another fire when the thermometer drops from 80 to freezing? There are some years when I’ve closed the flue and hauled out the ashes half a dozen times. Then there are the marches down the hall to turn off the a/c when ice forms on the widows or turn off the heater after you notice the backyard birdbath is boiling over. Were you here when it froze on an April 2? The weather can get cold when it should be warm. By the same token, in the dead of winter we often see the clouds part, the sun come out, and there is a window of a couple of days in January when the trees are fooled into budding only to be caught defenselessly exposed by the next blue norther. (Note to newcomers: The word is, indeed, “norther.” You are a “northerner;” a quick cold front is a “blue norther.”)
The problem with comparing temperatures and such is that Houston first started collecting weather data in 1882 but didn’t have a full year’s worth until 1889. Also, the official measuring station has moved, going from several different buildings downtown to Hobby in 1960. Then in June 1969 the weather instruments were moved 23 miles to the north to Bush (or Intercontinental as it was then known).
This brings us to our humidity. Dermatologists say the heavy, wet air is good for our skin, which is why we have nine huge machines scattered around town pumping moisture into the air. These Houston Humidifiers are the envy of Third World countries, including Dallas. Yet visitors continually ask us how we stand the summer’s heat and humidity. The proper answer (write this down) is, “I don’t. I go from my air-conditioned house to my air-conditioned car to my air-conditioned office. After work I either play on my air-conditioned tennis court or watch the Astros in an air-conditioned stadium.”
If I do go outside in the summer, it is to float in my neighbor’s pool with a cold beer – when they invite me. Once I took a ride in the Goodyear blimp and asked the pilot to go over my neighborhood. I was shocked by the number of backyard swimming pools on my block that no one told me about.
Houston has been called “the most air-conditioned city in the world,” which is just as hard to substantiate as being called “the fattest city in America.” But we do love our a/c. You have to special order a car without air conditioning. The Houston Yellow Pages has 36 pages listing air conditioning compared to 19 pages for churches. This matter of priorities is because Houstonians already know what hell is like: an August afternoon without air conditioning. Heaven is when the repairman says the burned-out compressor is covered by warranty. All of this cold air causes an odd situation. When people elsewhere say, with fear and awe, they are going to visit Houston in the summer, I tell them to bring a sweater. “Huh?” Our restaurants and theaters are freezing in the summer. I keep a jacket in my car year-round.
Finally, in our weather report there was an urban legend for years that the British Foreign Office authorized hardship pay for its staff in the Houston consulate because of our horrid weather, which was compared to that of Accra, Ghana, and Calcutta, India. It was a glorious put-down, so I asked the British consul general at that time if the story was true. He shook his head. “What we received was three years in Houston counted as four years toward retirement. That stopped after I told Whitehall, ‘My God. Haven’t you people ever heard of air conditioning?'” Incidentally, I was kidding about the humidifiers, but not about Tom DeLay. H