The Weekly Report Cornerstone

   WEEK 33 Aug 4th to 10th 2003


   ROME, Aug. 5 - A sweaty sense of dislocation was palpable today throughout Europe, where unusually high temperatures and a summer long dearth of rain have damaged crops, fanned wildfires, and left residents and tourists baking, broiling and steaming as seldom before.
   Power grids were under strain as people in countries normally suspicious of air-conditioning suddenly jettisoned their reservations and embraced - or longed for - even a manufactured breeze. In the northern Italian city of Genoa on Monday, employees at the city's justice department left their offices, which are not air-conditioned, to protest that fact.
   German officials publicly debated whether employees should be allowed to leave work, because of the heat, and retreat to less stressful, cooler environments.
   In Britain, many of the heat-addled people who passed through Trafalgar Square turned its fountains into wading pools, a desperate recourse for desperate weather. Penguins at the London Zoo were fed fish-flavored Popsicles, Reuters reported, while sunscreen was slathered onto pigs at another zoo.
   "I haven't seen heat like this in 70 years," said Stefano Colvolino, a 70-year-old traffic officer in Rome. Mr. Colvolino said that while individual weeks in the past had been hotter, he had never encountered a three-month stretch, from early May to the present, so consistently stifling.
   "It's totally impossible," he said as he stood, deeply tanned and visibly perspiring, near Campo de' Fiori late this afternoon. "I'm out on the streets four hours a day. They're the four worst hours of the day."
   Mr. Colvolino was actually lucky: the mercury hit only 98.6 degrees at its peak in Rome today. In Florence, it was 104. "At this point, Italy has become a tropical country," said Gabriela Medei, who sells fruit in Campo de' Fiori.
   The hot, arid weather left conditions ripe for wildfires, especially in Portugal, where thousands of firefighters are battling blazes that have, over the last week, destroyed more than 100,000 acres of woodland and killed at least 11 people. Hundreds of other people, in both Portugal and adjacent areas of Spain, have been evacuated from their homes to be out of fires' paths.
   Here in Italy, where anything beyond a squirt of rain is a memory so distant as to seem like a fantasy, farmers contemplate harvests of grapes, olives, peaches and apricots that might turn out to be 50 percent below normal. Already, the prices of many fruits and vegetables have shot up by 20 percent, according to the Agriculture Ministry. Agricultural groups estimate the financial toll on Italian farmers at about $6 billion so far.
   France is suffering a similar drought, with similar consequences. Farmers in much of the country have had to observe alternate-day irrigation plans.
   Ships plying the Danube in Eastern Europe carry restricted loads so they do not scrape bottom. Water levels in the river have declined so much that dredgers in Romania have had to deepen some channels so ships can pass.
   Britain has canceled some trains on busy routes and imposed reduced, temporary speed limits on others to make sure that rails do not buckle in unusually intense temperatures nearing 95 degrees.
   Around the city of Bradenburg, in eastern Germany, officials were barring people from entering forests in an effort to prevent fires. The summer drought had contributed to 300 forest fires in that area this year, officials said.
   Throughout Italy, the heavier use of air-conditioning and fans was contributing to a daily demand on electricity that was 2,000 megawatts higher than usual, and energy officials warned of blackouts if the situation did not improve. "The problem is very serious, very grave," said a spokesman for one of the country's largest energy providers. Here and elsewhere, public health officials urged elderly people in fragile health to stay as cool as possible, and there were scattered reports throughout Europe of deaths attributable to the heat. Spain and Portugal have suffered the worst of it. In some areas of the Iberian peninsula, temperatures over recent days have surpassed 110 degrees. Spanish officials said the heat had been responsible for at least 12 deaths since Friday. There were also forest fires in Spain, although not on the scale of Portugal, which declared a national disaster on Monday. Portuguese officials were marshaling all the resources they could to battle the fires, which they said late today were beginning to be contained. They also appealed for help from NATO.
   "We are facing an exceptional situation," the Portuguese prime minister, José Durão Barroso, told reporters after an emergency cabinet meeting on Monday. "It's been brought about by absolutely exceptional weather conditions, so we have to respond with exceptional measures."
   In Scandinavia thousands of instruments placed all over have registered water and sea temperatures way above average everywhere.
   There have also been major fires in the United States this summer.







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Entered 2003-08-05