Before Katrina, There Was New York's 1896 Heat Wave

Author Edward Kohn discusses lessons learned from New York’s 1896 heat wave.

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Long before Americans could retreat into air conditioning to escape the worst of the summer, a 10-day heat wave claimed the lives of about 1,300 New Yorkers in "the deadliest, urban heat disaster in American history," writes historian Edward Kohn. The year was 1896, when poor laborers living in crowded tenements had few options for relief from the heat. In Hot Time in the Old Town: The Great Heat Wave of 1896 and the Making of Theodore Roosevelt, Kohn recounts how Roosevelt, then New York City police commissioner, came to the aid of the working masses. Kohn, an assistant professor of American history at Bilkent University in Turkey, recently spoke with U.S. News. Excerpts:

When the heat wave of 1896 hit, what did Roosevelt do that was so memorable?

In 1896, it's a time when the government has no responsibility for the poor or the hungry, and Roosevelt champions a scheme to give away free ice. He personally supervises the distribution of the ice, and he actually tours some of the worst back alleys of New York's tenements to see how the mostly poor immigrant families used the ice.

Why hasn't this tragedy received more attention?

I think this is perhaps the most forgotten natural disaster in American history. We associate natural disasters with the moment the disaster strikes—dramatic images, property damage—and, of course, a heat wave has none of those things. Most Americans don't know even now that heat waves are actually this country's No. 1 natural-disaster killer. Think about the heat waves we've had this summer. When local media covers heat waves, what are the images that we see? It's nice images of children frolicking in fountains and eating ice cream, not the more sinister images we associate with damaged buildings and floods rising.

Why did you choose to focus your book on this sliver of Roosevelt's life?

I came across the letter that he wrote to his sister right at the end of the heat wave [that said], "Wow, what an interesting week it's been. We had a heated term, which was like a cholera epidemic of the 19th century, and we had William Jennings Bryan come to town and give a speech." As a historian, I was fascinated by this convergence of events and personalities.

Hurricane Katrina turned into a huge political liability for President George W. Bush. Were natural disasters like the heat wave as big a political issue in 1896?

Not really. I think there was really this idea that they were acts of God, period. It is much harder to fault government officials for not responding to a natural disaster like a heat wave [in 1896] because it is just not in the American lexicon yet to expect this kind of action from the government.

Did anything change after the heat wave?

Not really. The lessons from this heat wave are quickly forgotten. The city will not give away free ice again for another 20 years. This is one of the problems of heat waves: They disappear from our understanding of natural disasters so quickly, and so we repeat the disaster.

What can current politicians learn from Roosevelt's political acumen in handling this?

First of all, going up to Hurricane Katrina, natural disasters aren't just acts of God. There are other contributing circumstances, like government inaction. I would like to think that after Katrina, there would be a heightened awareness at all levels. Government inaction contributed to the disaster.

What surprised you most in writing this book?

The average victim was a male immigrant laborer, living in a tenement. I wasn't ready for that to be the story of the victims. The very old, the very young—that's what I was expecting. You really get this idea that it really is the working poor of New York, both living and working in conditions that would be unimaginable to us today.

What will most surprise readers?

Probably the conditions that people lived in 100 years ago. New Yorkers by the hundreds took to the rooftops and to the fire escapes to sleep, [and] so many of the heat wave deaths were [adults] and small children who rolled off the rooftops [in their sleep] and were crushed in the fall. The poor on the Lower East Side would try to get a breath of fresh air by going to the piers to sleep—and they would roll off and drown. It's just such a bizarre moment in time. It was like hell on Earth for 10 days in New York City's history.