FOR CALIFORNIANS, DEADLY HEAT CUT A BROAD SWATH
Death toll reaches 140; highest since 1955
By JENNIFER STEINHAUER
Published: August 11, 2006
BAKERSFIELD, Calif., Aug.
9 — On the last day of her life, Patricia Miller-Razor did the same things she did just about every other day in this
sun-parched town, even as the temperature climbed.
Skip to next paragraph She wrapped herself in her signature sweatsuit. She rode her bicycle to the Green Frog Market. She pondered her oil paintings,
and carvings fashioned from avocado seeds, all the while refusing the entreaties from her family to flick on her cooler in
her sweltering house.
Ms. Miller-Razor, 77, was later found by her
son sideways across her bed, dead of heat stroke.
Roughly 140 Californians met a similar quick
and grim fate in last month’s heat wave, a death toll unlike any the state had seen from high temperatures since 1955,
state officials said, before air-conditioning went mainstream.
The extraordinary toll, in a place where most
residents are accustomed to summer days in which the mercury hits triple digits, has shocked and unnerved state and local
officials, leading Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to order up a task force of health and emergency service officials to study
how to avoid such deaths.
The length of the heat wave — it dragged
on unabated for two weeks — overwhelmed county coroners, some of whom did not have the cots or refrigerators to handle
the bodies; strained the state’s power resources; and caused costly damage to crops and livestock, in addition to the
While some of those who died had much in common
with those who perished in heat waves this summer in New York City
and elsewhere — they were elderly or infirmed or frugal about using air-conditioners — many others reflected the
lifestyle and proclivities of people in the arid Southwest.
There were five homeless people living in tents
far off in the desert, who died in them. A half-dozen men were found dead after illegally trying to cross the border near
San Diego. A tractor driver who had tilled a farm for decades,
undaunted by long hot days in a long-sleeve shirt, died on the property.
Summers are to the Central Valley of California
what winters are to northern Maine; people who live here
are used to them, prepare for them, and to some extent are not fazed by them. The valley is the agricultural center of the
state, and people here are used to toiling on hot days in fields, knocking around in their gardens and generally going about
their business, knowing that the nights will bring relief from the dry heat that sears the day.
But for 13 straight days last month, things
went differently. “This heat wave was marked by three things,” said Eric A. Weiss, a professor of emergency medicine
at Stanford University
Medical Center and an expert
on heat-related illnesses.
“There was the duration, which is always
important because of the cumulative effect,” Dr. Weiss went on. “Two, there were the record temperatures. And
three, it did not cool down at night.”
He also said that some misinformation that had
been spread about the signs of heatstroke might have caused further illnesses or deaths.
While the elderly are always particularly prone
to death in harsh heat waves, fewer than half of those who died in California
were over 70, according to a compilation of the most recent coroners’ reports, most of which are not yet complete.
In San Bernardino
County, east of Los Angeles,
for example, the average age of the 10 who died was 45. There was a 49-year-old man who went to his car to listen to music,
fell asleep and was found later, the car heated to 140 degrees. Two men in their 40’s were found outdoors. A 30-year-old
construction worker who had headaches all week left his job site for the hospital and died there 20 minutes later.
“That was surprising to us, a real eye-opener,”
Sandy Fatland, a spokeswoman for the San Bernardino County coroner, said of the ages. “Perhaps when we are middle-aged, we don’t
have people around who make us take care of ourselves; and left to our own devices, we don’t.”
In a state where long hours are spent caring
for and harvesting crops, often by young, illegal workers from Mexico, Richard Helmuth, who worked for nearly 60 years at
the Del Ray Packing Company raisin farm just east of Fresno, stood out.
County coroner’s office attributed Mr. Helmuth’s death to
his work; Gerald Chooljian, a co-owner of the farm, said Mr. Helmuth, who was 79, had gotten off the tractor and gone to sit
in his car, where he was later discovered by another employee.
Mr. Chooljian was well versed in Mr. Helmuth’s
ways — his preference for solitude, his refusal to drink water that did not come from his home, his insistence on working
“He wore long sleeves and said, ‘I
don’t want the umbrella,’ ” Mr. Chooljian said. “And I thought, ‘O.K., you’ve been doing
this for 50-odd years, I am 52 so I’m a pipsqueak comparatively.
“He taught me how to drive a tractor,”
Mr. Chooljian added. “I respected him. He was his own boss; he did what he wanted, when he wanted. He always said he
wanted to die on a tractor.”
Many elderly victims were doomed by personal
choice. At the home of an elderly man in Bakersfield where
the air-conditioner was found broken, sheriffs found $25,000 in cash.
Araxie Long, 82, and her son Carl, 53, both died in the house they shared, where family members had begged them to turn on
“They absolutely hated A-C,” said
Diane Rowe, one of Mrs. Long’s daughters. “It wasn’t a matter of finances; they just couldn’t stand
it. Now, all I can think about is their beautiful smiles.”
Here in Bakersfield,
Ms. Miller-Razor had long refused to use her swamp cooler, which works by evaporation, saying that the cold air gave her body
“She was going to do her thing her way,”
her daughter-in-law Amy Razor said. “The house, the way it was locked up with two little six-inch fans, was probably
between 125 and 130 degrees. She would tell us ‘I am in tune with myself. I know how to take care of myself.’
Some seemed to have no choice.
In a Modesto apartment building with three units, two of the
three residents — both older men who had few people to look in on them — died in homes with no air-conditioning.
One was Eston Baker, 72, a veteran who liked to volunteer at the local retirement home; the other, Curtis Floray, kept a microphone
at the front door for visitors to speak into.
“It seems like the service guys, when
they hit 65 or 70, they kind of fall through the cracks,” said Jeannie Riley, Mr. Baker’s stepdaughter, who also
lives in Modesto. “I tried to get help from the county
for him. They were a little slow on it. He didn’t have anyone. He didn’t have a family. I think that was why he
was always around the older people all the time, because he was so lonely.”
Death also claimed the most marginalized: people
who came from Mexico and never made it
past the border, felled by heat; and those who lived in tent cities in the desert without running water or electricity.
Of the 10 people who died in Imperial County along the Mexican border, one
was trying to sneak across the border; one was gardening; 3 lived in trailers; and 5 lived in tents, far from any town. One
of the five lived in a big section of brush by the highway.
“Some are known and classified as schizophrenics,”
said Henry Proo, a deputy sheriff in Imperial County. “Some are out of the military and could never get back to society; some
are drug addicts, and for whatever reason this is the way they live. You got to live somewhere, and someone gives them a tent
and they put it under a shady tree.”
Deputy Proo said the authorities were used to
deaths in tents during hot summers, maybe one every week or so.
“But no one,” he said, “remembers
anything like this.”