We're All in This Together

July 19, 1995

The nation has been so divided lately, so torn by race and gender and generation and social value and suspicion and paranoia, it needed something to remind us of our common frailties, limitations and intolerances. The recent heat wave has done that.

Something like 150 million Americans shared this experience of an intolerable heat wave. In particular, the urban Northeast and the agricultural Plains states together felt the same heat, a little worse in the Midwest, and it was horrid for almost anyone without constant air conditioning.

The heat doesn't care if you are black or white, male or female, conservative or liberal. But it does discriminate. It especially punishes the very old or very young, those with heart or lung troubles, the overweight and over-active and the poor.

Death counts are not consistent because some medical examiners count only deaths where heat was the principal cause as shown by extraordinarily high body temperatures, others counting any death for which heat was a contributing factor. A figure of 655 for the nation (six in Maryland) must be considered conservative.

Nine refrigeration trucks outside the Chicago morgue to hold bodies until medical examiners could deal with them provided a more reliable index of unusual death.

Three million broiler chickens expired on the Delmarva Peninsula. Hundreds of thousands of turkeys died on Midwestern farms, as did huge numbers of cattle despite fire departments in Iowa hosing down local herds. Whatever the ultimate effect on Thanksgiving bird prices, this is a disaster as yet unmeasured for many communities. Farmers, in debt for livestock on which they will realize nothing, are insured against many forms of natural disaster but not heat wave.

There were at least three train wrecks from steel rails that bent or buckled from sustained heat. Two were freight trains in the Middle West. The third was the Baltimore Metro just north of the Rogers Avenue station, Monday afternoon, injuring 31 persons and crippling what had been among the safest and most reliable transit lines in the nation.

Where thunderstorms knocked out power, home-owners' defenses failed. In Baltimore City, where council members labored to draft a curfew to pass constitutional scrutiny, many thousands of poor with no air conditioning took to the streets in the evening whatever their ages.

It has been hotter in Baltimore than the 102 degrees recorded on Saturday. So perhaps this is not global warming. But if the world is getting warmer, what the nation experienced will recur more often and for long periods. We had better prepare.

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