Summer in the United States: Not Always a Picnic

(Suzicate)

A rain soaked picnic table after an unplanned storm. (Suzicate)

I usually say that one of the great things about the U.S. is the guaranteed summer we have. There’s nothing worse than enduring months of gray drizzle or frozen tundra, only to have one fleeting week of sunshine as your summer (eh, England 2012?). Remember the Queen’s Golden Jubilee river flotilla? Yeah, that was my summer trip back home last year, where the temp hovered around 60 Fahrenheit (15.5 Celsius) for the entire month of June. Apparently I missed the “summer” which happened in March of that particular year.

In the U.S., most states have a long, hot summer, some a little too hot for me, (I’m looking at you Texas, Louisiana, Arizona, New Mexico … in fact, the southernmost parts of the country in general.) A word about those torrid, southern summers by the way: you’ll need a sweater if you go anywhere. Most inside spaces in the South are air-conditioned to arctic temps and the hairs on your arms literally stand on end. Malls, movie theaters, restaurants — take a sweater or a light jacket. You’re welcome.

What often surprises visitors to the U.S. is the unreliability of the summer weather in many parts. Anyone who’s visited Florida at that time will know that not only is it fiendishly hot, your vacation itinerary is at the mercy of torrential rain and the odd hurricane or tornado. Thunderstorms occur on about half of all summer days, and the lightning that can accompany them packs a higher than average punch.

Here in Chicago, with its legendary winters, summer can be just as brutal. Last year I returned from England’s freezing June to temperatures in the 90s (30s Celsius) and energy-sapping humidity. In 1995 (when I was 7 months pregnant and the size of a small house), there were 750 heat-related deaths in less than a week, and 2012′s record heat wave also claimed lives. I always advise visitors to the U.S. to heed the weather advice; when they tell you to stay inside and drink lots of water, don’t even question it unless you want to end up in the emergency room on an IV drip. If you’re over here in hot weather, have a gigantic headache but haven’t touched a drop of booze, you are dehydrated and need to start pounding non-alcoholic liquids.

When planning parties, the question is often either “Will it be too hot to sit outside?” or “What happens if it rains?” Assuming they have air-conditioning (called A/C here as opposed to air-con), seasoned hosts always make sure they have enough room inside their homes to accommodate all their guests. You can be sure that if you have A/C and it’s hot outside, most Americans will head indoors. If you are near standing water with its ever-present mosquito population, and of a delicate British pallor, you’ll also want to get indoors pronto and escape the pesky things.

When the summer storms begin they also cause havoc with flight schedules. Any frequent flier will tell you that you’re just as likely to be weather delayed in the summer as the winter. Although today’s planes are designed to fly safely in lightning, such weather forces ground crews to stop fueling and loading planes, leading to the delays. And while on the subject of lightning, fatalities here are commonplace. According to the Lightning Safety web site, the U.S. averages 54 deaths per year, and being under a tree is the second leading cause of lightning casualties. Every year also, herds of cows, sheltering from storms, are killed when the trees get hit by lightning, so it’s no laughing matter. When the sirens go off, get inside.

All is not lost though. It’s not unbearably hot everywhere in the summer; if you’re looking for a cooler climate this web site gives the average temps for the coolest cities, the top city being San Francisco.

Oh yes, and wear your sunscreen!

Any other tips for surviving the wet hot American summer?