ON the mean streets of New York, it has been getting so hot that even firefighters have had to stay out of the kitchen. As urban jungle residents strive to stay cool in the 40 degrees Celsius heat wave that has been hitting the east coast, some have been looking to fire hydrants for comfort, illegally opening them to bathe in the welcome jets of water. However, city chiefs noticed that such hydrant abuse had wasted almost three billion litres of water in one week, and sent in firemen to close them all up. In the Bronx, the result was almost inevitable: overheated youths attacking the fire engines with stones and bottles, and even jets from the hydrants themselves. Angry residents of one block even retaliated at a hydrant closure by calling in 10 false alarms in the following 30 minutes. Now, the water will have to go to waste. Fire chiefs have issued a directive warning officers to back off rather than risk a confrontation. Meanwhile over in the calmer plains of the Mid-West, the frightening severity of the torrential rains, causing unprecedented flooding, has proved an ironic contrast and a reminder of the country's fragility beneath extremes of climate. While the eastern cities bake, the residents of Iowa, Illinois and five other states have swum into personal tragedy, as the Mississippi burst its banks and overflowed along several hundred kilometres of its northern stretch. Over 800,000 hectares of land have been flooded, 20 people killed, countless livelihoods ruined and at least US$5 billion (HK$38.5 billion) in damage done. And with nearly a quarter of America's rail freight moving through the flood zone, goods are backed up all the way to the west coast. The flooding has led to a drinking water shortage, and thousands of residents are having to be vaccinated against the threat from burst sewers. HUMORIST Bill Bryson, who grew up in Des Moines, Iowa, once wrote that it was the sort of town where, if a truck ran over a dog, every last resident would come out to have a look. Instead, the sort of place where nothing ever happens this week found itself the focus of every TV camera in the land, when in rode a white knight, slightly tanned from a Hawaii break. Nothing adds more macho points to a wimp presidency than dealing withan emergency, and Bill Clinton seized the moment with verve. Despite the still-lingering glow of his Bagdhad missile strike, Mr Clinton must have been aware of the risk of ending up the proverbial Des Moines dead dog. National emergencies have a habit of tripping up presidents: as the people club together and rally round, any sluggish or parsimonious response from the White House is bound to win enemies amongst voters and in Congress, one's own party included. And many a scandal has been wrought from past disasters where relief funds get frittered away without doing their job. Dealing with last year's Hurricane Andrew in Florida brought few bonus points to a Bush administration already on its last legs. The Washington Post sounded a stern warning in an editorial earlier in the week, when it said that after the government intervenes, ''a debate ensues: how smoothly was aid provided, and was there enough of it? Often there are problems. The Clinton administration, in its first such test, is trying to minimise them this time around. We hope it does, and not for political reasons.'' The president seems to have taken heed: arriving purposefully at the scene by helicopter, he declared the afflicted zones a disaster area, and promised to seek Congress' approval for a further US$2.5 billion in aid above the US$1 billion announced previously. Even that, he added, might have to be upped after farmers assessed the damage. As Governor of Arkansas, said the president, he had seen all kinds of disaster first-hand, such as hurricanes and tornados. Personal experience had made him more open to the victims' problems. ''I will do everything I can to make sure that America does not forget about the people of Iowa,'' he pronounced. Every TV station and every newspaper gave the Clinton appearance the kind of positive publicity that must have delighted even his veteran spin doctor, David Gergen. And cannily, the presidential announcement of aid managed to achieve something that has eluded him since he took office: the unanimous backing of Congress. Even as Representatives and Senators were at each other's throats in the latest deliberations over the Clinton budget, they seemed united in not wishing to block his generous aid package. The irony - which Mr Clinton himself acknowledged - is that the Mid-West rains and the billions in relief aid have conspired to add to the budget deficit. Although the victims of the floods will be picking up the pieces a year from now, Mr Clinton's handling of the emergency has revealed a president beginning to believe in himself after those initial months of indecision and plummeting approval ratings. One curious fact remains, however; presumably in his eagerness to go local, Mr Clinton spent his day in Des Moines sporting a fetching polo shirt with the logo ''Des Moines Firefighters''. Having saved the day for Mid-West farmers, the president may now be considering an altogether nastier job: helping New York's firemen sort out the thugs of the Bronx. Or then, maybe not.