heatwave alert

Another heatwave is on the horizon. Temperatures are forecast to go as high as 40°C (104°F) this week. Thank gawd my office is air-conditioned. But no air-conditioning at home (rarely do you find A/C in French apartments.) I have a Rowenta air purifier and two oscillating fans (one obtained by nearly getting into a fist-fight with a woman during the last heatwave, it was the last one on the shelf.) There was, literally, a rupture de stock of electric fans throughout the entire country.

We know the drill: lower the shutters and keep the windows closed, opening them only at night; don’t use the oven or any electrical appliance that produces heat; drink lots of water, even if you’re not thirsty. Avoid alcohol, meat, fried foods and greasy stuff. Eat lots of cold salads, protein and fruit (and eat lightly.) Splash water on your face and body several times a day. Avoid exercise and physical effort. Wear light, ample cotton clothing. Sit or even sleep on the floor because heat rises. Think of elderly neighbors who might be living alone and check up on them.

These are instructions we receive from the government who issue TV and radio “heatwave alerts.” Since the deadly Heatwave of 2003 in which 14,802 heat-related deaths (mostly among the elderly) occurred, a safety and awareness initiative was launched by the Public Health Agency. Now, bulletins warn of upcoming heatwaves while reminding citizens what to do. My personal practice at home is to put crisp, white Percale sheets on the bed and keep my flat clean and uncluttered. I also fill a glass jug with water, cut-up lemons, limes and ginger root and keep it in the fridge.

During the summer of 2003, the intensity and duration of the heat wrought havoc on the unprepared European population. Because it was August, the entire government was on vacation. President Chirac, holidaying in Quebec, refused to give up his vacation and return home. It was a disaster all round, a national disgrace really, and those who lived through it won’t forget. Unfortunately close to 15,000 people, mostly abandoned senior citizens, died. 15,000!! No solidarity whatsoever, no organization, no responsibility. As I said, a national disgrace.

Many bodies were not claimed for weeks because relatives were on vacation. A refrigerated warehouse outside Paris was used by undertakers as they did not have enough space in their own facilities. On 3 September 2003, 57 bodies were still left unclaimed in the Paris area, and were buried.

I lived through The Heatwave of 2003, and I can tell you it was brutal. All the wax candles in my apartment melted. Nights, I slept naked on the floor covered with a wet towel. I was working two jobs at the time: during the day in a French law firm that didn’t have A/C. The elevator broke down because of the heat and we had to climb five flights of stairs. Then I’d leave the day job at 5:30 to sprint up the Champs-Elysées – gasping in the heat – to my night job in a British law firm (thankfully with A/C.) It was early August 2003 and for eight consecutive days temperatures hovered between 38°C to 40°C (104°F), dropping only to around 35°C at night.

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