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European heat wave tally tops 19,000 dead

Friday, September 26, 2003

PARIS -- The heat wave that scorched Europe in August killed more than 19,000 people, according to official estimates tallied by The Associated Press, making it one of the most deadly natural disasters in the past century. The death toll may be higher: the AP survey of a dozen countries found that two -- Germany and Spain -- have attributed only a fraction of summer fatalities to heat so far.

France -- by far the hardest hit -- on Thursday reported a staggering heat wave death toll of 14,802. Scientists at INSERM, the National Institute of Health and Medical Research, reached the figure by counting the number of deaths over and above what would be expected for the month of August. The toll exceeds an earlier government count of 11,435, a figure based on deaths in only the first two weeks of the month, when Sahara-like temperatures gripped the continent.

No comprehensive Europe-wide toll exists, and the dimensions of the tragedy may never be known since nations are using different measures to determine heat-related deaths. The French compared the spike in mortality rates this summer to last and attributed the full difference to the record heat.

The AP conducted its survey over the past two weeks, obtaining information from government and nongovernment sources, including national Health Ministries, government statistics offices, mortuaries and ambulance services.

Italy followed the same formula for counting heat deaths as the French. The Health Ministry said 1,176 more Italians died in the first two weeks of August in the nation's 21 largest cities compared to the same period a year ago. The number will surely rise once figures are in for all of August. Italian authorities earlier reported a 4,175-person increase in deaths nationwide for July 16-Aug. 15.

Spain just 141

The Spanish Health Ministry put its official toll at just 141, saying it counted only people whose deaths were specifically attributed to temperature-related conditions such as heatstroke. But the ministry also said there were 4,230 more deaths last month than in August 2002.

"Having seen the results from the other countries, 141 seems like an underestimation," said Betina Menne, of the European Global Change and Health Program at the World Health Organization in Rome. She added that WHO had not yet seen the complete study.

In Germany, only 40 people are on official record as dying from the heat. The medical division of the German Weather Service is still compiling a country total, although it is unclear whether the federal government will do the same.

However, an AP survey of government statistics offices, ambulance services and undertakers showed that at least 806 more people died in 15 major cities and two states in August 2003 than in the same month last year. Similar figures from the other 14 states were not available.

Rolf-Peter Lange, director of the German Association of Undertakers, which represents about 80 percent of the nation's undertakers, expects up to a 10 percent increase in deaths for August, based on reports from funeral homes.

"I believe it can be linked to the heat," Lange said.

Other August official heat wave death tolls include:

-- Portugal: 1,300.

-- The Netherlands: between 1,000 and 1,400.

-- Britain: 907.

-- Belgium: 150.

-- Balkan nations of Croatia, Macedonia and Montenegro: 7.

-- Sweden: zero, although temperatures were unseasonably high.

Some cities suffered far more than others, as the German example shows.

In Offenbach, near Frankfurt along the Main River, 83 people died in August, compared to only 37 during the same month in 2002 -- an increase of 124 percent. Frankfurt reported a 21 percent rise in the number of deaths in August, from 590 to 714, although city officials haven't blamed the jump on the heat.

Cologne reported a 16 percent increase in deaths in August, 127 more than in the same month of 2002. Stuttgart showed a 32 percent increase in deaths for August, up to 276 from 209 in 2002.

Despite difficulties in counting casualties, Europe's heat wave of 2003 stands as one of the deadliest weather phenomenon in the last century.

A sizzling July in 1901 baked the midwestern United States, claiming more than 9,500 lives, according to a report in NOAA, the former magazine of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. That exceeded the death toll of 8,000 from a hurricane a year earlier that struck Galveston, Texas, often cited as the deadliest weather event of the 1900s.

In its duration and in temperatures reached, the heat wave was France's worst, surpassing the previous hottest summer in 1947, according to Meteo France, the national weather service. The death count from that year was not available.

The relentless heat set new records across Europe. France experienced suffocating temperatures of up to 104 degrees. In the German city of Roth in Bavaria, the temperature hit nearly 105 on Aug. 9. London experienced the hottest day in its history on Aug. 6 -- 95.7, beating the 95 recorded in 1990.

The intense heat also caused billions of dollars in damage, withering crops, sparking wildfires, decimating livestock and melting Alpine glaciers. But by far, the greatest loss was human -- mostly the frail and elderly who died quietly because their bodies were unable to cope with the temperatures.

"These were, on the whole, people who were older and weaker," said Bas Kuik, spokesman for the Dutch Health Ministry.

In France, authorities placed part of the blame on inadequate care for the elderly and an absence of medical personnel in August, a traditional vacation period when residents leave cities and doctors are hard to find. As temperatures soared in the first two weeks of August, elderly victims -- alone at home without air conditioning or at overwhelmed nursing homes and hospitals -- began to die of heat stroke, dehydration and other heat-related maladies at alarming rates.


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