In his new book, Hot Time in the Old Town: The Great Heat Wave of 1896 and the Making of Theodore Roosevelt, Edward P. Kohn tells how New York City’s government generally dithered while casualties mounted. During the heat wave in 1896, an estimated 1,300 people died as 10 straight days of 90-degree-plus heat, high humidity, and no wind baked the crowded working class tenements. Unfortunately, City Hall wasn’t keeping close track of what was happening until too late.
Roosevelt, then president of the city’s Board of Police Commissioners, was an exception. He ordered vendors to supply ice–normally too expensive for ordinary workers–for free.
Roosevelt personally supervised the ice distribution from the police precinct houses, not only “busting” this particular trust, but also having intimate contact with the city’s working poor. Writing his memoirs years later he would remember the “gasping misery of the little children and of the worn-out mothers.” Such scenes must have helped shape the man who was about to become the dominant figure of the Progressive era.
Kohn makes a perceptive point that general unawareness compounded the deadliness of the 1896 heat wave and can still exacerbate heat waves today. Even while some of us have begun waking up to the dangers of heat–especially since Chicago in 1995 and the European Summer of 2003– when complete, reliable, and immediate statistics are not available, heat is an underrated, quiet killer, more lethal than most people realize, and usually more lethal than necessary:
Images of forest fires and smoke-choked Moscow filled American televisions, yet the tremendous death toll from the heat wave attracted little attention. Only in mid-August did the Moscow city government report that the death rate in the city had doubled during the heat wave, resulting in three hundred extra deaths every day. The Russian heat wave, then, was a historic and catastrophic natural disaster. But it was underreported and will soon fade from our collective memory.
Now we’re galloping onward with fall, circulation patterns have changed and the summer’s heat has been replaced by other concerns. Reading Kohn’s book is a good way to reflect on the value of keeping good weather impacts statistics.