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Break in Europe's Record Heat Wave Provides Relief - 2003-08-14


A record heat wave that has battered much of Europe is finally breaking, with sizzling temperatures slowly returning to normal summertime levels on the continent. Problems caused by the heat wave remain.

European weather forecasters are finally offering the baking continent some good news, with temperatures falling from 40 degrees Celsius or more, back to the 20s and 30s in parts of France and Britain. In other parts of Europe the hot weather is expected to break in the coming days.

But the soaring temperatures and devastating drought have left a disastrous imprint on large areas of Europe, including tracks of fire-blackened forests from Croatia to Portugal. In France, the hot weather has left emergency wards and funeral parlors full, due to heat-related illnesses and deaths.

On Wednesday, French Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin launched an emergency disaster plan for Paris, before a three-day holiday weekend.

Mr. Raffarin also promised to seek emergency assistance from the European Commission for the country's drought-stricken farmers. It is unclear whether the effort will be successful, because the EU agricultural commissioner earlier said no further funds are available for the drought.

Despite such actions, French officials have faced a barrage of criticism over their handling of the heat wave. Emergency doctors have faulted Mr. Raffarin's conservative government for failing to plan for heat-sickened patients flooding to the country's hospitals. Funeral directors complain of a sanitary disaster, as they try to cope with more bodies than their facilities can handle.

And environmental groups like Greenpeace have denounced decisions by the French and German governments to temporarily relax temperature levels of water discharged by nuclear plants into rivers and lakes.

Frederic Marillier, a nuclear expert for Greenpeace France, argues the measures risk killing fish and plants, and further devastating an already drought-stressed environment. But government officials and power company executives say the measures are aimed at ensuring a steady supply of electricity, and will be used sparingly.

Several French government ministers have gone on radio and television to defend the government's handling of the heat wave. That includes French Health Minister Jean-Francois Mattei.

In an interview on French radio, Mr. Mattei acknowledged, for the first time, that the country is facing a heat-related health epidemic.

Not all of Europe's weather news has been bad. Soaring consumption of beer in Britain has prompted extra shipments of lager from Denmark, which means higher profits for Danish exporters.

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