Heat Is On French Officials

An elderly man dries his forehead, as he sits on a park bench in Rome's Testaccio, Thursday, Aug. 14, 2003. Throughout Italy temperatures still remain above 30 C (86 F).
Relieved French citizens are beginning to get a break from a punishing two-week heat wave that claimed as many as 3,000 lives.

But that relief doesn't extend to the government, which is now taking even more heat over perceptions it responded too slowly.

Speaking to reporters after an emergency meeting with the prime minister, France's health chief now says a reasonable estimate is between 1,500 and 3,000 dead. But other countries report far fewer deaths. Spain, for example, has recorded 42.

Opponents sharply criticized the conservative government, and some have demanded a formal inquiry.

But a lawmaker from the government's ruling coalition blames a law enacted by Socialists when they were in power. It limits France's working week to 35 hours. That left medical centers and hospitals short-staffed at the height of the crisis.

The "epidemic" of heat has preyed mostly on the elderly. In a statement, health officials say the deaths can be linked "directly or indirectly" to the heat. The number — the government's first official death toll estimate — far surpassed previous estimates.

"We can now state what's happening to us is a veritable epidemic," Health Minister Jean-Francois Mattei said on France-Inter radio.

Temperatures began abating Wednesday in France and Britain. That day, Paris awoke to a temperature of 73 degrees, noticeably cooler than the record early morning heat of 77.9 registered at the start of the week.

Meteo France forecaster Michel Daloz said the thermometer climbed toward 90 in Paris by early Wednesday afternoon, down from nearly 104-degree heat Tuesday.

The fortified city of Carcassone in the south roasted in 106-degree heat, while the Rhone Valley registered 102, Daloz said. The heat has prompted winemakers in some areas to begin harvesting their grapes early.

It was warm in London and southeastern England, with temperatures ranging from 77 to 82. But that was a refreshing change compared to Sunday, when the nation recorded its hottest day ever — 100.58 degrees at Gravesend, in southern England.

But temperatures remained high in Switzerland on Wednesday. The temperature in the capital, Bern, reached 98.6, the hottest day since 1865.

It remained in the high 90s across Germany on Wednesday, with a record high temperature overnight of 81.7, measured in Neutstadt, in southern Germany. The high heat continued across Italy. Wednesday was so far the warmest day in Austria this year, with temperatures of almost 102.

In Spain, where 42 deaths have been blamed on the weather, temperatures hit 107.6 in Seville and Caceres.

Forecasters are predicting a drop in temperatures by the weekend, with winds bringing cooling air in some regions. Despite thunderstorms and showers forecast in the north, officials say there is still no end to the dry spell that has made forests susceptible to fires.

At the height of the heat wave, Paris and other regions baked in temperatures sometimes topping 104 — agonizing in a country where air conditioning is not widespread.

The French government was accused of a slow response to heat-related deaths.

"In the majority of cases, these were not inevitable natural deaths, but missed chances," Francois Aubart, head of a Paris region medical trade union, said in an interview with the daily Le Parisien.

Mattei acknowledged "difficulties" for the government in managing the surge in temperatures, but said that hospital staffers were performing in an "exemplary" manner in response.

The government "carried out the responses that were needed" as soon as the first cases of heat-related death appeared about a week ago, Mattei said.

The government insists extra beds were put aside to treat victims of heat-related illnesses, and the Defense Ministry said military hospitals took patients from overburdened Paris hospitals.

Morgues and funeral directors have reported skyrocketing demand for their services since the heat wave took hold. General Funeral Services, France's largest undertaker, said it handled some 3,230 deaths from Aug. 4-10, compared to 2,300 on an average week in the year — a 37 percent jump.

Many people died in their apartments. One police officers' union in Paris called on the government to deploy the army to help retrieve bodies. Paris City Hall said Wednesday it had taken extra measures to ensure that city-run funeral homes would remain open to bury bodies on Friday, a holiday in France, and recall more than 30 municipal workers from vacation.

Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin asked the Paris region to launch an emergency hospital plan to handle a massive influx of patients.

The health ministry said its death estimate was partly drawn from studying deaths in 23 Paris region hospitals from July 25-Aug. 12 and from information provided by General Funeral Services.

According to 2002 figures, the Paris regional hospitals that were surveyed could have expected some 39 deaths a day, the ministry said. But on Aug. 12 this year, during the heat wave, they recorded nearly 180, it said.

Many of the victims were elderly. Elderly people are often left alone in August when their families go on vacation. To protect the elderly, Paris' 13 retirement homes bought extra fans and atomizers to keep their residents cool.

According to the U.S. Centers For Disease Control and Prevention, over the past 20 years heat killed more Americans than hurricanes, lightning, tornadoes, floods, and earthquakes combined.

Within a five-day period, the 1995 Chicago heat wave killed between 525 and 726 people, depending on the method used for determining which deaths were attributable to the high temperatures. In the heat wave of 1980, some 1,250 Americans died. A heat wave earlier this year in India killed at least 1,200 people.