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Monday, 19 August, 2002, 10:10 GMT 11:10 UK
Cool it, man!
Not since the uprising of the Czechs and the emergence of the playwright-politician Václav Havel have we wakened up to a front page piece datelined Prague.

The story of the floods that inundated Central Europe and Southern Russia was the first item on all main network evening news because of the novelty of it in that part of the world and the unimaginable vast extent of it.

For some of us, I'm sorry to say, there was a bitter wincing memory in the shots of Dresden, once the capital, the jewel of northern Baroque architecture.

I remember walking into the Zwinger 70 years ago as if I was suddenly in a dream of what heaven might be like.

I say "once" the great Baroque masterpiece, thanks to an act which we - the Americans and the British - will forever have on our consciences.

In February 1945 we actually destroyed three-quarters of the city in two nights of intense firebombing raids, sending residents to their deaths by burning or drowning.

Luckily for those of us who have the misfortune to retain that memory this once-in-a-century disaster was not a long-lasting news break because of another and specially American reason.

I should say that every evening literally, since the spring we have seen briefly - at the end of the nightly world news - shots of submerged buses, broken bridges, sandbags on the levee, families with all they own being ferried away from their bedroom windows or lying in serried rows in a local school house.

This has been happening and filmed every day for months, somewhere around the great ark of the Deep South, from New Orleans up through the Carolinas.

In fact during the past two, three months the weather in the far West, in the Deep South, in the Midwest and in the East has been so dependably awful in different ways that I've not even mentioned it in any talk.

But since May floods have drowned towns in the Mississippi Valley, along a stretch of say 200 miles.

Two-thirds of the South West farmland is in the worst drought since the Great Depression and something like a quarter of a million people have been evacuated either from land that was too dry or too wet.

In the far West about two million acres of forest have been blasted with raging fires beyond the control of armies of expert firefighters who had to be supplemented with volunteers from faraway states - from Canada and even from Hawaii.

So we Easterners, seeing the weary or ailing firefighters, watching families pack all they can carry and flee from their homes in droves and lie down on school or hospital floors, we no sooner give thanks that we don't live in Arizona or Southern California or Louisiana when we recall that we live in the East.

I say recall because it takes about three seconds for me to look out my study window on a thin, sunny haze over the rolling foliage of Central Park and have the second correct thought that it's 98 degrees out there, or as the weatherman reminds us, from time to time, because of the accumulated radiation from the buildings, the shade temperature on the streets is 105.

This has been going on for two months with one brief interruption by the dry North West wind from Canada - a blessing that lasted for three days.

Talking of blessings, in the moment of recognising the steaming inferno outside my window I was strongly inclined to say a prayer for the soul of Willis Carrier of Buffalo, New York, who - over the howls of protesting descendants of other engineers - may be justly called the father of air-conditioning.

More personally I thank him for thinking up the principle of dewpoint control by which I, for one, stay comfortably alive.

There have been a host of methods of cooling air, since the ancient Romans, and many claimants to the essential trick of air-conditioning but Carrier was the one who devised the first central air-conditioning unit which automatically controlled the saturation of the air and its temperature - established, you might say, the vital difference between air cooling and air conditioning.

I knew all this - I mean the main principle and the part played by the sainted Mr Carrier - but it was only about a week ago that for the first time I felt embarrassed to wonder what happened to the poor in squalid homes and the old in any home before air-conditioning.

I thought to put it to a couple of doctors. Neither, I have to say, an epidemiologist - public health expect.

I think they just thought of it then, even as I.

Well - people always begin "Well" when they're not quite sure what's to follow - Well, they got sick - in the American sense, that is, of ill - and died, I guess, because the pump couldn't work hard enough.

In fact that is a pretty good answer. Not brilliant: after all we all die of heart failure.

However, I might have had a more instructive and vastly more enlightening answer if I'd waited a week or so because last Tuesday there was made public a great new study, possibly the first of its kind, published by the Centre for Climatic Research at the University of Delaware.

The study has taken several years to complete and was conducted in most large and medium-size American cities.

And the subject? It is about the most deadly of natural disasters. Earthquakes? No. Hurricanes? No. Flood, fires, volcanoes? No. The answer is a heat wave.

First, the authors of the study disabuse us of several presumptions that I think most of us would make that the higher the temperature the worse the heat wave.

For example, the presumption that you live in 110 degrees in Phoenix, Arizona you're worse off, more threatened, than if you live in 80 degrees in the Rockies in Jackson, Wyoming.

They take the wide extreme of Dallas, deep in the heart of flat, hot Texas and Duluth up in the very northern stretch of the prairie in Minnesota and say, what makes a heat wave in Duluth is not what makes a heat wave in Dallas.

What then is a heat wave?

It is, quote: "A wide variation from your normal."

If you're used to an average temperature that varies, say, no more than seven, eight degrees - that's true in San Francisco, all the seasons of the year - then a rise from 65 to 80 is going to affect a native as a jump in New York city from 75 to 90.

The people in the desert often say "Well, it may have been a 100 yesterday but it's a dry heat and we don't have your humidity and we don't feel it so badly."

Now this is true but only to the extent that the desert people are not fooled by feeling dry especially when there's a strong wind - they're still losing water and must take care of that with salt pills.

It is true that humidity reduces the body's capacity to sweat and cool down.

And the worst death rates are in cities that have the highest temperature with the highest humidity. Worst of all among the city poor and people who live alone.

The death rate!

Well that's what this study is all about and what justifies the rather melodramatic title that a serious paper gave to the study - "the most deadly of the natural disasters".

The authors co-related the death rates of each city during average normal temperatures with the rates during a heat wave in the same month of the year.

They excluded the entry on death certificates of heart attack and stroke, admitting that these could or could not have been caused by the heat.

The overall figure is that while the annual deaths from earthquakes, tornadoes, floods are under 200, the average of city dwellers who die during or immediately at the end of a heat wave is 1,500.

They've gone over the published records of several famous heat waves and dramatically amended the figures.

In one week in July Chicago in 1995, 100 people were said to have died from the heat. The study says 739 died of the heat. The San Francisco earthquake of 1989 killed 62.

And the moral of all this? If you don't live or work in air-conditioned rooms get a fan.

If you're lonely get a friend.

If you're old, well, get lucky.

In any case stay out of the sun, don't exert yourself much, take a little more salt than usual, drink lots of water, take it easy - cool it, man!

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