(AP) NEW YORK - Temperatures climbed toward the high 90s along America's Eastern Coast on Wednesday as a hot spell heralded the official start of summer, with people wilting at graduation ceremonies, students trying to learn in suffocating classrooms and authorities warning folks to check on elderly neighbors.
The hot spell arrived right on time - on the summer solstice and longest day of the year - in a region that's home to some of America's most densely populated cities. Temperatures hit the mid- to high 90s along the eastern seaboard, including New York City, Boston, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C.
Health officials 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 have been 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, New Jersey, and taken to a hospital, police told The Record of Bergen County. 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.
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. The National Weather Service said the temperature at Washington National Airport was 95 degrees (35 Celsius) just before 2 p.m.
Forecasts for upstate New York on Wednesday and Thursday called for temperatures to hit the 90s (30s Celsius) from Niagara Falls to the Vermont border, with highs topping out in the mid-90s (30s Celsius) in some places. Elementary and middle schools in the Hudson Valley planned to dismiss students early because of the heat.
According to the National Weather Service, in New York City's Central Park, the temperature was 93 degrees (34 Celsius).
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.
In downtown Providence, Rhode Island, 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.
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, California, 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.