Image: John Pangburn, Wanda Pangburn,
Alonzo Adams  /  AP
John Pangburn and his wife, Wanda Pangburn, watch television in their home on a hot summer day in Mulhall, Okla. "I can't take the heat like my husband can," said Wanda. "I can go outside for a little bit, but I just don't stay out for long."
updated 7/31/2011 2:40:43 PM ET 2011-07-31T18:40:43

The air is cool inside Ray Knight's makeshift coffee shop on the main strip in this tiny northern Oklahoma farming community, but there aren't many customers.

With temperatures topping 100 degrees, the elderly farmers and retirees who Knight says like to gather and "swap lies" are nowhere to be seen. They're also probably not at their doctor's appointments, shopping at the store or at their club meetings. Many are afraid to go outside.

The heat wave scorching the Great Plains has turned many rural communities into virtual ghost towns for the last month, and also heightened a sense of isolation among the elderly residents who make up much of their population these days. The relentless stretch of 100-degree days, which began unusually early this year and could run for weeks longer, is making their way of life difficult and even dangerous, thwarting their routines for getting the supplies and health care they need.

Story: Hot weather persists in central United States

"I can't hardly do nothing when it's this hot," said Bryce Butler, an 86-year-old World War II veteran who stays in his house every day in this town of 200 people. He usually drives to the county seat in Guthrie, about 15 miles away, for errands but now can't go out after noon.

"I'm afraid if I had car trouble, I'd have a heat stroke," said Mary Hasley, 79, who lives in nearby Cashion. She has cancelled her doctor's appointments. "It's just too dangerous."

It's been over 100 for more than 30 days in a row in many parts of Oklahoma. In the town of Altus, the average high in June — when the weather is normally mild — was 105. In the many dozens of rural communities like Mulhall, where there are no longer any stores or other services, the elderly must drive other places for almost everything, and that has become daunting this summer.

"We go into plenty of areas where there's not even a service station, no drug store, no grocery stores," said Marlene Snow, who delivers meals to elderly residents as the project director of the Logan County Areawide Aging Agency. "Most of them don't want to go out. They don't have the energy."

In remote towns, the elderly residents try to look out for each other. But it isn't easy when those who live out in the country are afraid to drive to town. Many live alone.

James Tucker, pastor of Mulhall's First Baptist Church, says he's trying to keep track of who's coming to services and who's not. "Being a small community, you know who needs what and everybody tries to check on each other," he said.

But Jo Swinney, an outreach specialist for the Logan County group, worries some elderly folks could easily slip through the cracks. "I'm sure there are," Swinney said. "It's hard to make contact with people in these rural areas if they don't seek help from someone."

The oppressive heat already has been blamed on nine deaths in Oklahoma, including a man in Oklahoma City who was discovered inside his home with no electricity or running water; it's suspected as the cause of seven others, said Cherokee Ballard, a spokeswoman for the state medical examiner's office.

Mulhall, like many small towns in farm country, has steadily lost population, mostly younger people who moved to the city for work. The town had 400 residents as recently as 1985. The percentage of elderly is clearly higher than it was only a decade ago. "People just don't want to farm no more, and that's a shame," said Phil Robinson, who sat alone inside his empty honkytonk. Some rural counties lost more than 10 percent of their population in the last decade alone.

The only businesses left here are Knight's steel shop and the beer joint along the main strip. A tornado battered the town in 1999, and the only restaurant burned down last year. The closest grocery store and pharmacy are 15 miles away. The hospitals and medical specialists are in Oklahoma City, an hour to the south.

Seventy-year-old Wanda Pangburn spends most of the day inside her air conditioned home. If she does need to travel to Perry or Guthrie for groceries, she's sure to take her 9-year-old granddaughter with her in case she's overcome by the heat.

"I can't take the heat like my husband can," Pangburn said. "I can go outside for a little bit, but I just don't stay out for long."

Ray, whose coffee shop is set up in the air conditioned lobby of his steel fabrication shop, wonders about some of the regulars he normally sees during the day.

"From 11 to 3, there's nobody here but me, my secretary and my helper," said Knight, who at 61 said he's typically the youngest of the usual group at his coffee spot.

Hasley said she's hoping for a break in the heat soon so she can make a run for supplies. "I'd love to go into town or go to Wal-Mart, but it's just too hot," she said. Until then, "I just stay in where it's cool."

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


Discussion comments