Calif. heat wave kills 141, mainly poor

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — The California heat wave last month killed more people than either the Northridge earthquake of 1994, the Loma Prieta earthquake of 1989 or the wildfires of 2003.

On July 29, the record two-week heat wave came to an end, but not before it had caused the deaths of 141 people, mainly poor, elderly, disabled or homeless, across the state.

In Sacramento, which had a record 11 consecutive days of triple-digit heat, with temperatures going as high as 115 degrees Fahrenheit, four men were found dead in “single residency only” hotel rooms near the State Capitol. These tiny rooms, just a step above homelessness, lacked air conditioning and even an air-conditioned lobby where the residents could cool down.

Eight other Sacramentans, all elderly people who lived alone, also died because of the heat.

Inland California is always hot during the summer. Temperatures over 100 degrees are common during July, but the thermometer usually goes down when the sun does, giving overnight respite from the heat.

But in this heat wave, which some are theorizing has a connection to global warming, the nights stayed as hot as 80 degrees, and daytime readings were as much as 10 degrees above normal.

In Chicago, where a heat wave killed hundreds of elderly in 1995, the city has a registry of people living alone and an automated call system during hot weather. Those who do not respond get personal visits. In Fresno, Calif., police took water to the places where homeless people camp.

But the city and county of Sacramento do not have an emergency plan for heat crises. Though authorities finally opened free “cooling centers” at air-conditioned public libraries, community centers and the State Fair site at Cal Expo, it was only towards the end of the hot spell, according to Garren Batcher, co-director of Friendship Park run by Loaves and Fishes, a nonprofit group that provides meals and services for homeless people just outside of Sacramento’s downtown.

Cooling center staff were surprised that so few people came to use them. Not enough publicity and insufficient public transportation could be the reasons that few poor people braved the sizzling sidewalks to travel to an air-conditioned site.

Homeless people haven’t any money to ride on the light rail trains that could bring them to a center, Batcher said.

“Our government, from the governor to the mayor, did nothing to assist homeless people,” said Batcher. “We were even instructed by the police not to send homeless people to the closest cooling center at 7th and K,” a downtown intersection.

Loaves and Fishes provided ice and water to people who came to Friendship Park, but the facility is all outdoors, so there was no way to keep it cool, he said.

“It’s time for the mayor [Heather Fargo] of Sacramento to take responsibility for all the citizens, not just those who have homes, vote and pay taxes,” Batcher said.