The Natural Disaster We’re Having

[Update: I was far too pessimistic about the heatwave. According to Wikipedia, it killed 82 people, far fewer than I was worried about. I guess I am a bit of an alarmist after all.]

Over at Breitbart, Joel B. Pollack is trying to use the recent heat wave against President Obama:

With much of the East Coast still struggling to recover from recent storms that cut power to millions of residents during a heat wave, President Barack Obama is wrapping up a comfortable vacation in Camp David. He was not too busy to visit the scene of wildfires in swing-state Colorado–and make some fundraising calls from Air Force One en route–but he somehow could not muster the strength to address the state of emergency closer to home.

Twenty-two people have died, and residents around Washington, DC are struggling to navigate roads whose signals have not worked for days.

He goes on on lambast the mainstream media for not reporting Obama’s dereliction of duty…like I said, this was in Breitbart. I don’t think there’s much Obama or Congress could do about the heat wave (although in an election year, they’re likely to try something) but Pollack has a point of sorts: This heat wave is a very serious problem.

First though, let me get this off my chest: Just because you folks who live in DC felt really hot and lost power doesn’t make this a DC disaster. It was hot everywhere. I was in eastern Kentucky this weekend and we were sweating in 106°F. It’s not just about you.

That said, Pollack is right that this is a serious natural disaster. That figure of 22 dead is almost certainly a gross underestimate. When all the counting is done, I think this heat wave — combined with the power failures — will turn out to have killed a few hundred people.

And I wouldn’t be surprised if this heatwave turns out to be the United States’ worst natural disaster of the decade. Maybe of the last several decades, including hurricane Katrina.

Think I’m being an alarmist? It’s certainly possible. I’m far from an expert on weather and public health. But answer me this: What was the worst natural disaster in the United States in the 1990’s?

It was the Chicago heatwave of 1995. Heat death is slow and insidious, and it mostly kills people who live by themselves and have no one to rescue them, so the bodies are not discovered right away. Even when the bodies are discovered, the cause of death is not obvious or easy to prove — it’s mostly a diagnosis of exclusion — and there’s political pressure to keep the numbers low. When all the bodies had been found and examined, and all the politics pushed aside, the Chicago heatwave had killed 700 people.

That’s more than a third as many as were killed in hurricane Katrina, yet the Chicago heatwave was much smaller than this one, striking mostly in a single metropolitan area. By comparison, the heatwave that hit Europe in 2003 covered several countries and killed 70,000 people.

I’m not hearing anything that would make this heatwave that bad, but I think it’s probably already a lot worse than we know.

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