Thursday, July 5, 2012

The Great Heat Wave of 1896--how it helped shape the Theodore Roosevelt presidency

I was looking up the history of heat waves and ran across the book Hot Time in the Old Town, Kohn, by way of an NPR interview with the author

The book links Teddy Roosevelt's later identity as a "Reformer" to massive deaths in New York City due to a 10-day heat-wave. Most of the dead were the poor who could get no relief from the heat at night, and public policy banned them from sleeping in public where they might have been able to cool down. The ban, of course, was designed to limit the visibility of vagrants, and discourage the 'lifestyle of vagrancy.'

I can think about the 1,500 people that died from the heat during this one tragic week, in relation to the house that I'm trying to restore. It is a 3-story (if you count the attic) Victorian built in 1895, the same decade as these deaths. Based on a floor plan of Victorians in NYC from the 1890s that I found in a newspaper article from that time, my house looks almost exactly like these early floor plans, so my house would probably be characteristic of where these people may have been living, if the owner were renting out some rooms upstairs. My experience with my house, which does not have central air because of looting that occurred in the 10 years it sat abandoned, is that there can easily be a 50F difference between the top floor and the basement. The attic, which is unfinished, but which is easily the size of a 3rd floor, is typically 10-20F hotter than it is outside due to the black shingles on the roof and poor ventilation. The 2nd floor is approximately air temperature or hotter. The first floor stays about 10-15F cooler than outside air temperature, while the basement is easily 20-25F cooler than outside. Because of the way my house buffers changes in air temperature, temperatures peak inside around 9pm to midnight, and don't start to cool down until around 3-6am, and even then, it's not much of a cool-down, maybe a 5F-10F difference.

According to Kohn's book, city policy prevented people from going outside at night to get relief from the heat that had built up inside their residences. If they lived on the top floors of an apartment building, I can easily imagine it reaching 120F during the day, and staying above 100F at night. My second floor hasn't dipped below 95F for the last 2 weeks. Fortunately I have a window air conditioning unit in a room on the 1st floor where I can sleep safely. However, according to CNN today (July 5th), there are still almost a million people without power from recent storms, facing another 3-day predicted stretch of highs in the 100s across the Midwest. Not to mention parts of the globe where electricity or air conditioners are mere fantasy.

Another interesting thing to me about Kohn's book is how starkly we see the differences between Republicans of the early 1900s, shown here in Teddy Roosevelt, versus Republicans today, and their outlook towards the most vulnerable in our society. Teddy (I would just call him Roosevelt, but then there would be the confusion with FDR), as Republican Reformer, wanted to create public policy that would support the poorest in our society, such as the expansion of protections for children in the welfare system. He convened the first White House Conference to discuss the care of dependent children, leaving his mark on early social work, along with other Reformers of the day. One of the large-scale initiatives he is known for is the "Square Deal," designed to help working-class and poor citizens. The Square Deal emphasized several key goals--protecting consumers, limiting the influence of large corporations, and conserving national resources. We see these in specific policies, such as the broad expansion of protections for national forests, the Food and Drug Act, the Meat Inspection Act, and the Tillman Act. The last of these explicitly prohibited corporate contributions to political campaigns--sound like an appropriate conversation for today? Other anti-corporate efforts by Theodore were the development of the Department of Commerce and Labor, to regulate interstate business violations and labor relations; the Bureau of Corporations, to monitor and regulate corporations; and a series of anti-trust lawsuits designed to prevent large corporate violations--one such suit was filed against JP Morgan--again, sound like an appropriate conversation for today? While certainly Democrats have changed dramatically from the early 1900s to today, the Republican transition from Teddy Roosevelt, to Ronald Reagan, to the current batch of freshman "Tea Party" congress Republicans is quite striking--just as many of Reagan's policies would likely not get through the current Republican leadership, I imagine Teddy's 'Square Deal' policies would be decried as Socialism and environmental extremism.

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