In Midwest, they fight heat with fans and 'mobile cooling centers'

Cities find inventive ways to help residents cope with 'sizzling summer' of 1999.

It may be one of the hottest summers of the decade in America's midsection, but cities from Iowa to Pennsylvania are finding inventive ways to beat the heat.

In fact, there's been a substantial shift in how cities tackle heat waves - a change that's come after strings of Tabasco-hot summers in which weather has been blamed for many deaths.

*In Chicago, air-conditioned city buses are used as "mobile cooling centers," ready to roll to emergency hot spots.

*In Philadelphia, senior citizens get a "buddy" who makes sure they're surviving the heat.

*In Des Moines, Iowa, community groups disperse electric fans and bottled water to the elderly and shut-in residents.

*Regionwide, power companies are relying on "interruptible" contracts with big industrial users, such as steel mills. The customers get cheaper rates, but when a heat crisis hits their power may be cut off -and used to keep the city cool.

In many cases, these ideas were implemented after summers filled with hard lessons. In Chicago, more than 450 people, most of them elderly, perished in the heat in 1995. Heat was blamed for 118 deaths in Philadelphia two years earlier. St. Louis and Kansas City lost more than 100 residents each in 1980.

"Before 1995, air conditioning was seen as a luxury," says a Chicago spokesman, Terry Levin. "Now it's seen as a necessity for a certain segment of the population."

AFTER 1995, Chicago, like many cities, put a heat-alert plan in place. If a string of hot days is predicted, the plan is triggered. Cooling centers in public buildings open up. City workers - including 300 police officers - work their way down a master list of thousands of senior citizens. They call first. If no one answers, they go to the home.

This year, while not as hot as 1995 in Chicago, just eight deaths have been blamed on the heat.

Nationwide, at least 35 people have perished, including nine in Cincinnati. After a respite midweek, temperatures are expected to move up again.

A major obstacle for heat-busters helping those at risk - especially senior citizens - is residents' independence. Many say they don't want or need help.

Breaking through the self-reliance requires a mix of neighborly kindness and velveteen persistence, says Annie Felger, a spritely Irish grandmother who makes the rounds in Northside Chicago. "We all need to be good neighbors who will go in and check on them," she says. "You just have to be nice enough to convince them you're not intruding."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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