In 1896, when a massive heat wave hit New York, it was not city government’s problem.
For 10 days that summer, outdoor temperatures rocketed above 90 degrees Fahrenheit, reaching up to 120 degrees inside old brick tenement buildings. Ice companies jacked up the price of ice, horses fainted by the hundreds, and by the end of the heat wave, nearly 1,500 New Yorkers had died.
The mayor didn’t call an emergency meeting with his department heads until the emergency was almost over. But it was that summer, according to historian Edward Kohn, that a giant shift in government’s role took place.
A young Theodore Roosevelt was the city’s police commissioner at the time, and seeing that the mayor wasn’t acting, he took matters into his own hands. He opened up the police precinct on the Lower East Side and handed out ice to the poor immigrants living in tenements there.
“For Theodore Roosevelt to say, ‘Well, no, the government should be responsible — should purchase this ice and hand it out for free’ — that was a pretty radical notion,” said Kohn, the author of Hot Time in the Old Town: The Great Heat Wave of 1896 and the Making of Theodore Roosevelt.
The notion is no longer radical. The city tackles extreme heat today through long- and short-term strategies. But some of its initiatives are poorly executed or stuck in the planning stages. An estimated 140 people still die every year due to heat. Continue reading