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Killer Heatwave!

photo: astroland park, coney island

The future looked great - 50 years ago at Coney Island.

Blackout 2OO3

Paris:- Monday, 25. August 2003:- Today's high temperature is forecast to be 28 degrees, but there is a bit of wind from the northeast so it feels cooler. At the height of the summer heatwave around Wednesday, 13. August, the day's low temperature was 25.5 degrees - about 78 F - and there wasn't a breath of wind. High temperatures went above 40 degrees - over 100 F - and the heatwave lasted for weeks.

The 49th parallel runs just to the north of Paris, so this places it on about the same latitude as most of the border between the United States and Canada west of the Great Lakes. In comparison, New York City is on the 41st parallel, and semi-tropical Washington, DC is just below the 39th, somewhat south of Madrid's latitude, and about 215 miles south of France's southernmost point.

Washington DC therefore sits on a latitude about 900 miles south of Paris. On the day after the hottest night of the year in Paris since records have been kept, the Washington Post published an unsigned editorial titled, 'Can't Stand the Heat?'

It wondered what all the fuss was about, mentioning that everybody who could find one, was buying an electric fan. Afterphoto: sidewalk skelton, paris agreeing that temperatures had been in the 90s and at times topped the 100 F mark, the editorial writer wondered if Europeans might not 'wax nostalgic' for customary summer rain.

It continued, noting that Washington's temperatures in the 80s were a bit below average, but noted that highs of 100 F are common in Texas and nobody there thinks there's anything extraordinary about it.

Seen on a sidewalk on the way to the club meeting last Thursday.

Then a bit of free advice was generously offered. It said Europeans should stop 'turning up noses' at American inventions such as windows that don't open on account of arctic-like air-conditioning, and restaurants serving free tall glasses of water filled 'to the brim' with ice.

A few days earlier, on Monday, 11. August, a public health watchdog unit sent an email to France's minister of health who was on holiday in the Var ragion in the south of France, saying that there had been some heat-related deaths, but the situation was under control.

This was a day after the president of hospital emergency services in the Ile-de-France region stated that there was a 'slaughter' going on, with 50 deaths within the past four days.

On the same Monday, 11. August, the head of the health watchdog unit was informed by the Paris undertakers association that mortuarys were saturated. That evening, the Minister for Health, Jean-François Mattei, was interviewed on TF1-TV evening news at his holiday home in the Var, wearing a polo shirt.

He merely informed French viewers of the creation of a toll-free number to call, that would provide advice about preventative measures residents could use to combat the heatwave.

The following day, the president of hospital emergency services in the Ile-de-France region announced that there were more than 100 victims of the heatwave. The Prime Minister, Jean-Pierre Raffarin, continued his alpine holidays. However, in the evening the minister of health announced the mobilisation of the Croix Rouge, and the freeing up of some military hospital beds near Paris.

On Wednesday, 13. August, the minister of health moved off square one and made an personal inspection of thesign: bad things happen Saint-Andre hospital in Bordeaux, which had registered 20 deaths. Attacked verbally by hospital emergency staff, he admitted that some deaths might have been caused by overflowing emergency wards.

In the evening, the country's general director of health, Lucien Abenhaim, returned from his vacation to hold a crises meeting. Mention was first made of 3000 deaths in France. At the same time, the Prime Minister ordered an 'emergency plan' to be carried out by hospitals in the Ile-de-France region.

Sign seen in Manhattan, long before the 14. August blackout.

On Thursday, 14. August, the Elysée Palace let it be known via the AFP agency that Président Jacques Chirac, on holiday in Quebec, was in permanent contact with the Prime Minister - who chose this day to return to Paris to hold his own crises meeting.

In its editions, the daily newspaper Le Parisien estimated the heat-related deaths in the Ile-de-France region alone were 2000. The head of retirement homes in France called for the unfreeze of 103 million euros, budgeted in 2003 for improvements. This was also the day that the government finally decided that there was some urgency, and declared a plan for it - two weeks after the beginning of the heatwave.

On Sunday, 17. August, the watchdog public health unit estimated the deaths at 3000 for all France. The minister of health's estimate was between 1500 and 3000. A day later, 5000 deaths seemed 'plausible' to the same minister of health. Between the first and 19. August, some newspapers ran double the usual number of death notices.

France's président, Jacques Chirac, returned from Canada on Wednesday, 20. August, and presided over a morning meeting of the council of ministers at the Elysée Palace, with an agenda devoted almost exclusively to the effects of the heatwave and government reactions to it.

In the evening, on France-2 TV-news, a spokesman for the undertakers in France estimated an extra 10,000 deaths, for a total of 13,632 throughout the country. This added up to 36 percent more deaths than normal for France, and 64 percent more in the Ile-de-France region.

The président spoke on TV on Thursday night, 21. August, and praised the hospital emergency services, nurses everywhere, and the Croix Rouge.

Paris mayor, Bertrand Delanoë, toured city hospitals and promised that their larger rooms would be air-conditioned. Some hospitals have been in service since before the révolution. There are more than 400,000 people aged over 65 living in Paris.

In Paris there are about 300 bodies still unclaimed by relatives, but social workers are trying to contact them. Normally corpses can be kept for six days before burial, but this has been extended to ten days. There are 130 additional bodies being kept in refrigerated trucks parked in Ivry just outside the city.

Already the unclaimed who have gone over the ten-day limit are being buried by the city at its cemetery at Thiais. If relatives do turn up later, the bodies can be exhumed and moved to permanent graves.

I have not been able to find any trace of the quote attributed to France's Prime Minister, Jean-Pierre Raffarin, that I read a week ago in the New York Times. He is alleged to have said that the deaths were the fault of the French, who abandoned their old folks, to go on annual holidays.

The undertakers have said that 50 percent died in retirement homes, 30 percent in hospitals, and 20 percent at home. The headphoto: bus under the el, queens of hospital coordination said many died at home because they were released from hospitals too soon, to make way for new admissions. Paris social workers have said some of the aged have no families.

Non-MTA bus cruising under the elevated subway '7' line in Queens.

There is little air-conditioning in private dwellings in Paris because much of it was built before any existed. In any case, weather conditions are seldom extreme. Very few remember the terrible heatwave of 1947, and 1976 was characterized more by a long drought than excessive heat.

Cool glasses of water are available at thousands of cafés and restaurants for the asking. Usage of ice in water is not common, and consumers who are not used to it may ask for it to be removed if it is added automatically - as it sometimes is.

Blackout of the Year

It was almost a nice-enough day to go to Coney Island on Thursday, 14. August. But at 16:09 all electricity stopped, halting all subways, elevators, traffic lights, refrigeration units and air conditioners in the United States' eight northeastern states and parts of Canada. Fifty million people were without power.

For me, in an un-air-conditioned apartment, it meant that the temperature stayed in the mid-80s along with the humidity. The fans, in such short supply in Paris, stopped blowing damp air around. With the power off, there was no way to receive the Café Metropole Club report from Linda 'Cools' Thalman.

Outside the apartment, most noise stopped along with the air-conditioners. With traffic lights blank, drivers drovephoto: p j clarkes, blackout party zone carefully instead of beeping at each other. Prudently, banks closed and less prudently, ATMs stopped dispensing cash. Planes continued to land at La Guardia and JFK airports, but all takeoffs were cancelled.

When TV returned on Friday, it showed a big party outside this Manhattan bar during the blackout.

After dark residents descended from their apartments and passed the evening sitting outside, accompanied by candles, picnics, some warm drinks and with a few transistor radios. A solo saxophonist in the next block gave a 90-minute concert consisting of well-known New York tunes.

We weren't the only lucky. In darkened hospitals and clinics, about 93 babies were born. Others, not so lucky, had to find their way out of 225 subway trains stranded in tunnels, but with the assistance of MTA workers and firemen, no one was seriously injured.

Many other people were extracted from 800 stalled elevators in New York City buildings. Traffic jams in Manhattan and other boroughs were tremendous, with 11,000 traffic lights out of operation. Without subways, the number of workers who walked home was uncountable. Some 200,000 rode to Staten Island and New Jersey on ferries instead of subways and trains.

Firefighters put out 60 serious fires, many started by candles. NYPD had 10,000 officers of the streets, and emergency services responded to 80,000 calls, 5000 of them medical.

Despite dire predictions, crimes were no more than usual for a 24-hour weekday period in August, and cases of looting were rare. City buses kept running, but stopped charging for rides. According the Daily News, the event's biggest ripoff were $400 car-service fares from Manhattan to Queens.

Many people, stranded in Manhattan, partied the whole night through - as long as their cash held out. Manyphoto: new york daily news, lights on visitors were out of luck though, because the hotels they had booked had no elevators to lift them to their rooms. Thousands of people slept on the sidewalks or in parks, under starry skies seldom seen in New York.

Many shops were closed on Friday, so I didn't see the 'lights out' edition of this newspaper.

Early radio reports suggested the power outage had been caused by lightning striking something vital at Canada's power generating facilities at Niagra Falls. Later reports shifted the blame to the US side of the twin waterfalls. Hours later blame was focused on two GM plants in Ohio, or some fallen power line on Cleveland.

In either case, listeners were reminded that since the last big blackout in 1977, not all good electrical resolutions had been carried out - and anyway, since then - deregulation had unhinged some plans.

Early on, radio reported that President Bush said the country hadn't been attacked by terrorists. Then many 'experts' suggested that terrorists could get some ideas from the blackout, because causing one would be easy. They did not mention what benefits terrorists might get from one. But US Air Force fighters patrolled over the city in any case.

The power was still out on Friday morning. Mayor Bloomberg invited many workers to take the day off. Radio reports began warnings about consuming food that had thawed out due to a lack of refrigeration. Shop and restaurant operators were told to throw everything out. On Thursday night, some of it had been given away, especially ice cream.

On Friday some smaller shops cautiously opened, and long lines formed at the few gas stations that had regained power to run their pumps. A nearby supermarket with electric doors, let in customers in small groups. Presumably all sales were for cash.

City beaches were ordered closed on Friday because of untreated sewage dumped into the East River. This spoiled weekend plans for many, but the beaches were declared safe again on Wednesday.

Electricity returned to the city in a spotty fashion. During the night of Friday some power came back in parts ofphoto: new world coffee the Bronx and in parts of lower Manhattan and in New Jersey. Later in the morning it resumed piecemeal, but wasn't fully restored in New York until about 25 hours after the blackout started, at about 17:45 on Friday. The full roar of tens of thousands of air-conditioning units returned.

In Manhattan, the 'new world.'

Subway service was back to near-full operation by late Saturday, but it took until Monday to clear stranded passengers out of the airports. With traffic lights again in operation, drivers resumed honking at each other and buses resumed charging for rides.

Online Weather Warnings

We are easing out of the height of summer now. It seems to be going about it about far more sunnily than in past years instead of commencing September's dreary rains. The alert service of France-Météo's is very short-term. Its level '3' and '4' warnings are changed to colors for TV presentation, with orange indicating 'beware,' but level 4's red is seldom shown.

Mainly these warnings will about areas beyond the area of the Ile-de-France. But summer is summer and even Paris is not completely immune to passing storms. I was away during the two-week heatwave so I don't know how France-Météo advertised it.

If you are curious or need to know more about France's late summer weather, give the Météo France Web site a hit, for its short-range forecasts.

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