The weather forecaster on the local NBC affiliate in Washington, D.C., did not mince words this morning. High of 96, with high humidity -- "miserably hot," he said -- and the probability of severe thunderstorms.
"Miserable" pretty much sums up the weather in much of the country this month, and it comes at the worst time for America's barkeeps and restaurateurs. As these proprietors try to cobble together a new business model by converting parking lots to outdoor dining sites, selling drinks to-go and making other concessions to the pandemic, a historic heat wave has decimated their traffic before they even had much chance to get going. "When it rains, it pours" hardly describes their ill fortunes this year.
It's happened previously, and before air conditioning was widespread -- when such weather was lethal.
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The United States was in the midst of the Great Depression -- and a presidential election -- in 1936, a year that began with extreme winter weather. In Washington, D.C., in late January, the temperature averaged only 14 degrees. A huge snowstorm cut off the Appalachians from the Eastern Seaboard. In the Midwest, record snowfalls were followed by record cold spells. One town in North Dakota went 41 consecutive days without the mercury topping zero. Ski rescues were common from the Sierra Nevada mountains to Maine, while rivers froze over as far south as Richmond. Entire communities were cut off without power for weeks. That February, Americans prayed for warmer weather. Those prayers would be mocked. The March snowmelt produced destructive floods. April brought killer tornadoes. But the worst of it arrived in June when it suddenly -- and for a long time -- became unbearably hot.
The Great Heat Wave of 1936, largely forgotten now, smothered the East Coast and Upper Midwest with furnace-like temperatures. In mid-July, it reached 104 degrees in Philadelphia and Washington; 107 in Baltimore. In Toronto, it reached 100, exacting a death toll there not seen since the 1918 influenza pandemic. If you sought refuge -- and shade -- in New York City's Central Park on July 9, you were braving 106-degree temperatures. Some businesses, notably movie theaters, had air-conditioning, as did a few homes. But the vast majority of Americans were left to fend for themselves any way they could. New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia opened all public beaches at night. Detroit's Belle Isle resembled a Gypsy camp as thousands of Michiganders spent nights on the beach there.
The worst of it was felt in the Midwest. The extreme heat that struck the Plains States destroyed crops and felled people from the Dakotas to the Red River Valley, setting records that have never been topped: 111 in Decorah, Iowa; 110 in Bismarck, N.D.; 108 in Rochester, Minn. Ten Detroiters were felled on the first day of the heat wave. On the worst day, St. Paul alone lost 51 people.
"Healthy men and women would start off for work in the morning and never come home, falling in the streets or at work when they were overcome by the sun and heat," Detroit News reporter George Cantor wrote on the 60th anniversary of the disaster.
"Weeping relatives besieged Receiving Hospital and the morgue, where the dead were lined up in corridors since no space remained on the slabs," Cantor added. "Doctors and nurses collapsed at their stations, overcome by heat and fatigue. ‘It's as if Detroit has been attacked by a plague out of the Middle Ages,' one observer wrote."
It didn't abate until September. When it did, an estimated 5,000 Americans had perished, along with 1,100 Canadians. What did people do then? Resumed their lives, mostly. There was a Depression to contend with, crops to tend, factories to run, and babies to feed. Meanwhile, another kind of storm was brewing across the ocean: War clouds were again gathering in Europe.
Carl M. Cannon is the Washington bureau chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.