A Killer Heatwave (2003)
In both meteorological and anecdotic terms, this story was a slow burner. It began on August 4th when temperatures in the capital reached 35°C. A temperature rarely seen in Paris, but not exceptional in France. That first day, we just took cool drinks and slept with the windows open.
The problem this year was that temperatures didn’t drop back to normal levels. In fact, they crept up even higher over the next few days, to 36°, 37° and even 39°. Night-time levels were also unusually high (around 25°), and there was an almost complete lack of wind. Unpleasant certainly, but nobody imagined the greater significance these temperatures would have.
I have northern roots, and do not particularly like hot weather. I live in Paris partly because of its pleasant climate, but when the thermometer goes above 30° in the city it is horrible. I was suffering, but the whole city was tired. At work, everyone was complaining of sleepless nights, with open windows just bringing street noise, not cooling air.
I was one of the lucky ones. A few days after the beginning of the heatwave I went on holiday to Wales were temperatures were ideal. After a few days of warm days and fresher nights, I’d forgotten about the situation back over the Channel until somebody told me that the BBC were reporting 15,000 deaths in France. It must have been a mistake I thought, until I picked up newspapers the next day and saw the stories being confirmed.
When I arrived back in Paris, temperatures had dropped back to normal levels, but it was only now that the whole story of the calamity was starting to unravel. For nine days until August 13th, temperatures stayed above 35° in the daytime, something the city had not experienced before. Everyone had suffered, but it was primarily the older generation who paid the heaviest price.
It is difficult to attribute a death to specific weather conditions, but what was clear was that mortality levels were much higher than normal. It is estimated that over two thousand people in Paris had lost their life over the ten day period due to the heat, with the night of the 11th August being the biggest killer. Beyond the sad loss of life though, it was the stories of misery that touched people most.
With the morgues being filled to capacity, a fleet of refrigerated lorries and a cold storage area at the Rungis market were hired to stock the dead. A week later, 300 bodies had still not been reclaimed. Worse still, on the 3rd September President Jacques Chirac and Bertrand Delanoë, Mayor of Paris, attended a special ceremony on to bury the 57 victims who had died without any known family.
These had been dog days that filled the French with guilt. The older generation had been forgotten, hidden away and given no role to play in the society. This is particularly true in a large city like Paris were people do not even know the names of their neighbours. It is unlikely that such exceptional weather conditions will return soon, but if they do, it is hoped that this time everyone will pay more attention to others around them.