5 Insane Realities Of A Deadly Heat Wave
Unless you live directly on the beach like some sort of McConaughey, summer can be a rough time. There's a big difference between a nice sunny day and those mid-heat-wave laser blasts. Fortunately, we've invented air conditioning to keep Mother Nature from nuking us off the face of the planet come August.
Unfortunately, not everybody has it. Especially not in a place like Karachi, Pakistan. That's why 1,300-1,400 people died there this past June, during a heat wave that saw temperatures topping 113 degrees Fahrenheit. Cracked wanted to know what it's like to live through such a brutal, deadly heat wave, so we reached out to Taha Anis, a Karachi-based journalist for the English language Express Tribune. He told us ...
We Were Ambushed By The Heat Wave
Karachi, located on the coast, has one of the mildest climates in Pakistan. The last time it got that hot was all the way back in 1979. And just like in a Hollywood disaster movie, some inappropriately handsome environmental experts DID try to warn the authorities after a similar heat wave killed 2,500 people in neighboring India the previous month. Meteorologists should have been able to predict something bad on the horizon, but the Pakistan Meteorology Department (PMD) was deemed "ill equipped to predict extreme weather events." Generally not something you want to hear from the bureau responsible for predicting extreme weather events.
"We can't even guess what the temperature will be, since all of our predicting equipment mysteriously burst into flames."
Karachi is a city sharply segregated by class. Upper- and middle-class people tend to stay in their districts, while the poor and working-class stick to theirs. Naturally, the heat wave hit the working-class and poorer districts hardest, due to the lack of AC.
"The general masses only became aware of the deaths via the media," Taha explained. "Of course everyone notices the heat (ACs, especially those in cars, need to be turned up to 11. Also people do have to travel to and fro, so the heat is noticed even when its brunt isn't borne). The initial death toll started off with a figure of less than 20 on the television, and then kept on rising as time went by."
The authorities were aware of the deaths, but did virtually nothing in the early days of the heat wave because, and we're paraphrasing here, "Oof, it's too hot out there."
"Sorry, but I don't work if the temperature is higher than my bowling average."
"Of course the authorities are notified when people die of a heat stroke in a hospital or are being treated of such. So pinpointing the exact time the 'authorities' found out is impossible -- especially since the 'authorities' are three layers of government and an entire plethora of bureaucracy to boot."
Now, while the poor and working-class may not have AC, they usually have access to fans, and they can drink water, right? It's not like they were out wrestling in a parking lot somewhere. How do you let something like heat kill you? Well, as a cruel coincidence, the heat wave struck at exactly the wrong time ...
Everything Combined To Make The Heat Wave As Deadly As Possible
There was a deadly combination of factors in the city itself. Karachi has narrow streets and lots of asphalt, and deforestation has severely deprived the city of much shade. Karachi is supposed to have 25 percent forest cover, yet it actually has 12 percent. The reason? Billboards. Trees are cut down for billboards, which no doubt has absolutely nothing to do with the fact that certain political heavies in Sindh have a stake in them. It's easy to imagine dozens of people stroking out in the shade-less heat, their last vision on Earth of some smiling chucklefuck prominently advertising a smartphone.
Chucklefuck not seen here, since he melted two hours ago.
Experts call tree-less heat sinks like this "urban heat islands". You might be thinking: "Gee that sounds like a really bad thing to have if you happen to get hit by a freak heat wave." If so, you'd be right. Normally, heat from the sun stores up in asphalt and other urban building materials, and then dissipates at night. But during the summer, the days are longer, so the heat doesn't get a chance to fully escape. The sun comes up and bakes the city some more, and it gets hotter and hotter. When this is happening in areas with no shade -- especially with narrow streets and crowded marketplaces -- these areas become like that cup of coffee you keep forgetting about and re-microwaving.
In fact, there was a mere 17-degree difference between the heat index and the temperature of an average cup of coffee. Seriously.
Then, to make things worse, K-Electric, Karachi's electricity provider, crapped out on the first day of the heat wave due to excess demand for power. That first day of the heat wave also coincided with the beginning of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, and the fast that comes with it. The thing about fasting during Ramadan is that it's not limited to food. You also don't drink anything from sun up to sun down. It was like the Perfect Storm, but with less Marky Mark and a higher death toll.
Of course, like many other requirements for Muslims, there are exceptions to the fasting rule -- typically for the elderly, the sick, pregnant women, and young children. As Taha explained, however, there can be a sort of Halal-er than thou attitude among some people in Karachi. This means that while people might break the fast in private, they don't want to be seen doing it in public. Even an influential Islamic cleric issued a fatwa reminding people that the fast can be broken in case of a medical condition, but by that time, hundreds had already died. Sometimes pride ain't worth a nice cool glass of water, folks.
The Hospitals Were Completely Overwhelmed
By the end of the first week of the heat wave, 65,000 people had been treated for heat stroke in Karachi's hospitals. The Jinnah Postgraduate Medical Centre is Karachi's largest hospital, and their director reported that her team was treating as many as 1,800-1,900 people a day in the emergency department. Conditions in the hospital were so strained that the medical personnel were forced to rely on volunteers for donations of water, ice, and even beds for the afflicted. The JPMC is equipped with a large central AC unit, but it is expensive to run, and due to a lack of funds, it remained unused. Yep, no AC even in the hospital.
Why bother effortlessly treating everyone in the hospital simultaneously when you already have wet towels and handheld fans?
By far the worst situation, though, was the lack of space in the morgues. A senior hospital official reported that bodies were being piled on top of each other. And without any space left inside the morgue, there was no choice but to start stacking them outside. In one of the worst heat waves ever reported. Reading Rainbow may have taught you all about the power of imagination, but it's probably best not to use it on that smell.
There Were Bodies Everywhere
Morgues were faced with shortages of space, and with so many people dying so rapidly, the graveyards found themselves in a seller's market. But would they stoop so low as to gouge the poor? Grieving people whose loved ones had died so tragically?
You know the answer to that already. You've seen reality TV. You know the world is a horrible place.
Taha says that a grave plot is often a bargain, sold for the equivalent of 15 USD. But like a morbid version of Uber, graveyards responded to the demand by jacking up their prices several times, all the way up to 150-500 USD. For many of the bereaved, 150 USD is an entire month's salary. With the demand for grave plots and their prices soaring, there was only one logical solution: communal graves. Over 500 mass graves were dug to handle the corpses, with some holding as many as 100 bodies.
Like this one, which volunteers dug with shovels in 110-degree heat for the unclaimed bodies of heroin addicts,
because in addition to gouging cemetery owners, Pakistan has a few perfect human beings.
Of course, before you can bury a body, it needs to get to the morgue, and that requires transport. Karachi has a fleet of funeral vans for this purpose, but supply was really short. People had to improvise. But those vans are special vehicles, and dead bodies need to be kept at a low temperature, or things get seriously gross in a hurry. How are you going to improvise a fleet of vehicles big enough to hold bodies with onboard refriger-- oh god.
Yep, food delivery trucks were pressed into service as makeshift hearses.
Starting a game of "What else rode in the same truck as this" that sort of sapped the fun out of grocery shopping.
Imagine getting pulled over while performing that service. No cop in the world would believe your excuse as to why you have corpses in the back of your ice cream van.
This Is Going To Happen Again
As unprecedented as it might have been, numerous experts have linked the heat wave to global warming, and that's clearly not going away any time soon. Some people have suggested solutions to help minimize future damage, however. One is to improve education for poor people about the dangers of heat-related conditions and how to prevent them. Another easy fix, previously implemented in India, involved replacing a hospital's black tar roof, which absorbs heat, with a white one, which reflects it. Pretty simple stuff, right?
At this point, it should be obvious that "pretty simple" is short for "The sun will burn out before any changes are made."
Too bad the local authorities seem to be sticking to their strategy of shifting blame while doing absolutely jack shit to minimize the consequences if it ever happens again. We have a feeling that this big-budget disaster movie is getting an unwanted sequel sometime very soon ...
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