Heat: When 70,000 died

We’ve noted that Philadelphia may be on the verge of a rarity, an August without a 90-degree reading, something that has happened only four times in the last 100 years.

How different August conditions were in Europe 10 years ago. On this date in 2003, the temperature at the Guidonia, Italy weather station outside Rome went past 90 for the 25th time in August (it reached 89 twice).

But the heat at the end of the month was but a fading ember of one of the most catastrophic weather events in the history of the developed world.

The temperature went above 100 for 10 consecutive days, from Aug. 4-13, and the average monthly temperature was a sultry 86, according to the wonderful Weather Underground historical archive.

That Italian station is elevated about 300 feet, and its average temperatures typically are a few shades cooler than those at Philadelphia International Airport, where the August average is around 76, and highest on record was 79.9.

The precise death toll might never be known, but the World Meteorological Organization blamed heat for killing 70,000 people in Europe in the summer of 2003.

Before baking Italy, the heat had scorched France, where it had become a horrific disaster, what crisis-management specialist Patrick Lagadec would call a “fiasco” and “a collective failure,” with 20,000 or more deaths.

How in the developed world could this have happened?

One obvious explanation was the heat, itself. For a Philadelphian, the relative ferocity is hard to envision.

On Aug. 6, the high temperature in Paris reached 104. That was 30 degrees above the normal; a similar departure in Philadelphia would yield a high of 115.

In the week beginning Aug. 6, the high temperatures went above 100 five times in Paris; hitting 96 and 98 the other two days.

The heat wave intensified what already had been a hot and bone-dry summer. During the peak of the heat, the atmosphere over Paris was almost desert-like.

But as we observed back then, this was a disaster that could only have happened in the developed world.

Regardless of whatever role global warming had in the 2003 disaster, or what it might mean for future heat waves, two factors indisputably will continue to stoke heat mortality:

People are living longer, and more of them are living alone, says Eric Klinenberg, the New York University sociologist at New York University who authored the quintessential study of the Chicago heat disaster of 1995 and, more recently, a book on living alone.

“We live in an aging society,” he said. “There are more people that are living alone than ever before. The numbers just continue to grow. In some ways we are victims of our success.”

Philadelphia’s rowhouse neighborhoods, with their substantial elderly live-alone populations, are particularly vulnerable during heat waves. Philadelphia, fortunately, has an aggressive heat-wave plan in place.  

A heat wave of the length and intensity of the Europe’s in 2003 could be an all-out catastrophe in U.S. big cities, Klinenberg said.

He believes that such an event is all but inevitable – and preventable – providing local officials view extreme heat  “as a potential health crisis, and not just a minor inconvenience.”

He said that while it makes sense to prepare for hurricanes, “The next big one might be a heat wave.”