Sure it’s Hot Now, But You Shoulda Seen 1896…

Sure it’s Hot Now, But You Shoulda Seen 1896…

July 22, 2011 at 4:28 pm

As the heat wave spreads across the country, the Tri-State Region prepares for temperatures in the 100s. Here, a boy plays in water from a fire hydrant (Summer 2010). MetroFocus/Sam Lewis

As the nation’s sweltering heat wave moved to the East Coast on Thursday, life’s daily routines, like cooking and commuting, became daunting tasks.

For those without air conditioning, this year’s scorcher — which has temperatures in the Tri-State region in the triple digits — can pose a health threat. The heat wave may seem unprecedented, but it’s been worse before. A lot worse.

In 1896, New York City experienced a heat wave that pushed the heat index above 120 degrees for nearly 10 days, killing at least 1,500 people. Similarly to today, New York’s poor were hit the hardest — packed into crumbling Lower East Side tenements, residents slept on fire escapes and roofs to stay cool. They also stocked ice in their homes just to bring down the temperature.

“Hot Time in an Old Town, The Great Heat Wave of 1896 and the Making of Theodore Roosevelt,” by Edward Kohn, recounts the dramatic tale. His story captures the birth of the Progressive Era, a time when the public’s health became a government responsibility. City officials scrambled to coordinate efforts, and in the absence of the mayor and his department heads, it was lesser-known police commissioner Theodore Roosevelt who championed the idea of distributing free ice to the poor.

In 1936, in the midst of the Great Depression, the U.S. was crippled by a heat wave that lasted several months. Across the nation, more than 3,000 people died within the first 12 twelve days and by summer’s end the scorcher caused 5,000 deaths. The Midwest, already suffering from a grasshopper infestation and years of drought, lost $1 billion in crops, the New York Times reported.

In 1955, a week-long wave of smoldering temperatures caused 700 deaths in Chicago. “Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago,” by author and NYU sociology professor Eric Klinenberg, explores how social conditions, like poverty and age, isolate people from resources (such as cooling centers) and exacerbate health risks associated with excessive temperatures. On Thursday, City Limits spoke with Klinenberg about his work and how the current high temperatures affect cities.

This summer, as consumers crank up their air conditioners — putting a stranglehold on the region’s power grids — Con Edison told the New York Times that “there are likely to be scattered outages with heat and humidity this intense.” On Friday, news of various outages across the Tri-State region had begun to spread. See Con Edison’s power outage map here.

Dense urban populations seem to suffer the most during heat waves. New York City hit 104 degrees Friday. Newark, which sits close to sea level and does not enjoy the ocean breeze that New York City does, generally posts temps a few degrees above those of neighboring cities. On Friday, it broke its highest recorded temperature when the mercury hit 106 degrees.

“Like any other urban city, there’s crime, other problems. The weather is just one more thing thrown on our backs,” Kareem Mohammed, 51, told the Times.