France Ready To Combat Heat Wave

People cool off in the Trocadero fountains in Paris Tuesday, Aug. 14, 2003. The heat has hovered in the mid-30s Celsius (around 100 degrees Fahrenheit) in many regions for days. In some places, it broke records. Meteo France said temperatures throughout France were expected to drop by midweek
Hospitals, retirement homes and the government are ready to combat a potential heat wave in case of a replay of soaring temperatures that left thousands dead last summer, the French health minister said Thursday.

"The system, today, is ready," Philippe Douste-Blazy told reporters after a Cabinet meeting on new measures to guard against another catastrophe.

Nearly 15,000 people -- most of them elderly -- died from heat-related causes after record temperatures struck much of France last summer. Officials cited unpreparedness in the health care system.

The conservative government came under intense criticism for failing to act fast enough to stem the death toll, blamed on a range of problems from lack of air conditioning and staffing shortages at retirement homes to summertime vacationing by doctors and nurses.

The heat wave hit primarily in August, France's traditional vacation period, a time when many families on getaways left elderly relatives at home alone.

Douste-Blazy said the government had increased staffing at hospitals nationwide, hiring 754 people to work in geriatric wards and 745 people in emergency rooms.

About 80 percent of retirement homes in the country now have what the government calls "cool rooms" -- a common room with an air conditioner, said Hubert Falco, minister for the elderly.

"We are ready to confront a crisis,'' Falco said.

Temperature readings last August soared to record levels in France, often topping 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit).

Critics have questioned the government's highly touted efforts toward better vigilance this summer. Hospitals and retirement homes said that funding -- largely earmarked for cool rooms, fans, and air conditioning -- was not always reaching the proper recipients and has been siphoned off by other needy health care services instead.

By Emmanuel Georges-Picot