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French Seethe At Government's Response To Heat

Posted - Aug. 14, 2003 at 10:20 a.m.



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PARIS -- The mercury started to fall Wednesday. But plenty of Parisians were still hot about the government's slow response to searing temperatures that may have claimed more than 100 lives in and around the French capital since Friday.

''The siesta is, traditionally, a way of conserving your energy in hot climates,'' said an editorial in Wednesday's edition of the newspaper Le Monde. ''But maybe that's the government's method?''

Doctors in emergency rooms around the country were calling the situation a ''health catastrophe,'' a ''state of war'' and ''scandalous.'' A police officers trade union in Paris, Synergie Officiers, confirmed a ''massive loss of life'' in the city.

Mortuaries were so packed they turned away grieving families seeking burial services. Some cemeteries were staying open late to accommodate more burials. The Pompes Funebres Generales, one of the largest undertakers, said the death rate was up 37% across the country last week and 49% in Paris compared with last year.

''The problem was -- people who died, there were not enough places to put them,'' said Laurance Danand, a spokeswoman for the health ministry. Most of the people who succumbed to the heat were elderly, she said. ''Old people are often alone and do not feel the need to drink,'' and become dehydrated, Danand said.

The French haven't been suffering alone. It was nearly 99 degrees in Bern, Switzerland, on Wednesday. That's the hottest day since 1865. A record-high overnight temperature of 81.7 was measured in Neustadt in southern Germany. Wednesday was the warmest day in Austria this year. The day's high was 102.

After two weeks of record heat, French Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin announced late Tuesday that military hospitals would treat civilians suffering from the heat, but several of the hospitals had just a handful of empty beds.

Julien Dray, spokesman for the opposition Socialist Party, accused the government of sitting on its hands. ''There should have been an emergency group that met each day and planned, which is what the Americans do in natural disasters,'' he said.

The government held its first meeting on the heat crisis on Monday. The Institut de Veille Sanitaire, France's counterpart to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, started a study this week to find out how many people died as a result of the heat, rather than from other conditions that may have been exacerbated by record-high temperatures.

''We hope the results will be turned into new proposals,'' to cope with future heat waves, said Elsa Videl, spokeswoman for the institute. One proposal is expected to be air conditioning for hospitals. ''There are very few hospitals with air conditioning. That's one of the big issues. If the climate is really changing, we should invest in this,'' she said, referring to claims that the unusual heat wave is a result of global warming. Only a fraction of the homes and offices in France have air conditioning.

A spokesman for the French weather service said this heat wave is as bad as or worse than a record breaker in 1947. Temperatures this time have hovered around 104 degrees in Paris for days, making Wednesday's 90 degree heat a welcome respite.

''The last two days were murder,'' said Suzanne Kehrer, a Toronto native who was vacationing in Paris. ''Today, thank God, it's nice.''

She and her husband spent the past few days in one of two air-conditioned places: their hotel room or underground shopping arcades.

Parisians mostly stayed home during the day. In the late evenings, many went to cafes or to the banks and bridges of the River Seine for picnics.

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© Copyright 2003 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.

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