Europe Sweats Through A Record-Breaking July

Families cool off in the fountains of Parc Andre Citroen in Paris as temperatures hit the 90s, reminding some of the deadly 2003 heat wave.
Families cool off in the fountains of Parc Andre Citroen in Paris as temperatures hit the 90s, reminding some of the deadly 2003 heat wave. (By Remy De La Mauviniere -- Associated Press)
By Molly Moore
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, July 27, 2006

PARIS, July 26 -- At the zoo in the southeastern French city of Lyon, the polar bears suffering in 99-degree heat snacked on mackerel-flavored popsicles the size of bricks.

Beneath the Eiffel Tower on Wednesday, huge fans spewed mist over lines of tourists broiling in the 97-degree weather.

Much of Europe is roasting this week in record-breaking heat that has killed 40 people in France, shut down a nuclear reactor in Spain because river water was too hot to cool it, and fueled forest fires in Croatia.

"We'll probably see that this month of July was the hottest ever in the history of French meteorology," said Frederic Nathan, a meteorologist for Meteo France.

Britain last week reported its hottest July day ever at 97.7 degrees. Meteorologists in the Netherlands predict that this will be the hottest July since the country started keeping records in 1706.

The French Health Ministry, which has issued emergency alerts across the country, has put retired doctors and medical students on standby to assist hospitals and clinics and to take emergency calls.

France and many other European countries are now quick to designate heat waves as national emergencies, following a 2003 blast of heat that left 30,000 people dead across Europe. Almost half of the victims were in France, most of them elderly people who lived in apartments, houses or nursing homes without air conditioning.

Compounding the problem, French authorities did not recognize the extent of the crisis at the time. The health minister, Jean-Francois Mattei, appeared in a television interview from his holiday villa dressed in a polo shirt and announced the government's response to the crisis -- the launching of a toll-free telephone number.

"The authorities learned their lesson from 2003," said Xavier Bertrand, France's current health minister. "We're giving two messages: One, on a health basis, to drink a lot of water, to remain cool. And the second is about solidarity -- for everyone to help isolated neighbors or relatives, homeless people, people who work in construction, very young babies."

Francoise Chauvet, 78, a retired schoolteacher, walked carefully Wednesday in the shadow of a yellow umbrella on a sizzling Paris street. "I feel as though I would melt otherwise," she said.

Like many elderly French, Chauvet said that the attention her family has heaped on her has become almost as stifling as the heat itself. "My daughter went on holiday, and with the heat wave she is more worried about me than I am," Chauvet said. "She calls all the time to check up on me. It's nice, but I keep repeating to her that I can handle it."

The 40 deaths in France so far have included an infant, several people who collapsed at work, two who died while playing sports and several elderly persons, according to the Health Ministry.

As a result, local governments in southern France have shortened the workday, allowing employees to leave at 2 p.m. Sports training sessions have been curtailed.

In the Netherlands' northern Friesland province, the weather has sent cattle and horses into water ditches to seek relief. Fire brigades are getting five calls a day to pull stranded animals out of the muck, the NOS news service reported.

The heat wave hit just as farmers were beginning their wheat harvests in the midst of severe drought. The European Commission said southwestern France, southeastern Spain and central Italy are being particularly parched, with the French wheat harvest down by a fifth.

Nathan, the meteorologist, said climate analysts warn that periods of blistering heat are no longer an aberration: "We have to get ready for more heat waves in the future."

Researcher Corinne Gavard contributed to this report.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company