Remembering—and Forgetting—the Lessons of Chicago’s 1995 Heat Wave

The reissue of sociologist Eric Klinenberg’s classic book on the deadly heat wave should remind us that such disasters are anything but natural.

Daniel Hertz October 6, 2015

(Leo-setä / Flickr)

More than 730 peo­ple died in Chica­go dur­ing the heat wave of 1995. The death toll was greater than any Amer­i­can nat­ur­al dis­as­ter in recent mem­o­ry, save Hur­ri­cane Kat­ri­na. It dwarfed the icon­ic Chica­go dis­as­ter of the past — only” 300 died in the Fire — and even the city’s icon­ic dis­as­ter of the present: in all of 2014, the city lost 433 peo­ple to homi­cide. The heat wave last­ed just a week.

If the city's media failed to warn their readers and viewers of just how serious an event they were facing, the city's government failed to render to its citizens the help that might have actually saved their lives. City Hall had guidelines for declaring a hot weather emergency and mobilizing preventative resources, but ignored them and waited until several days into the heat wave—once bodies were already overflowing the morgue—to put them in motion.

Which makes it extreme­ly jar­ring to learn that the Chica­go Tri­bunes first front-page sto­ry on the weath­er — pub­lished the day after tem­per­a­tures tied an all-time record — began with an admo­ni­tion to Stop your whin­ing.” The piece went on to quote a woman from Texas who rec­om­mend­ed that every­one just go to the mall.

That astound­ing detail, and many oth­ers, come from soci­ol­o­gist Eric Kli­nen­berg’s Heat Wave: A Social Autop­sy of Dis­as­ter in Chica­go, which first came out in 2002 and quick­ly became the defin­i­tive account of its sub­ject. The book has been re-issued for the 20th anniver­sary of the heat wave, and remains a pow­er­ful indict­ment of the thick lay­ers of dys­func­tion that led to pos­si­bly hun­dreds of unnec­es­sary deaths. The book’s fun­da­men­tal, and con­vinc­ing, claim is that the heat wave was not a nat­ur­al dis­as­ter. It was, instead, the result of human frailty, error and mal­ice, start­ing with an inabil­i­ty to under­stand the dan­ger­ous poten­tial of the heat.

In ret­ro­spect, the Tri­bune might have writ­ten the most cringe-induc­ing lede, but they were hard­ly alone in grave­ly under­es­ti­mat­ing what was hap­pen­ing. Oth­er media were also slow to catch on, ini­tial­ly cast­ing the event sim­ply as a local weath­er sto­ry rather than a human­i­tar­i­an cri­sis of his­toric pro­por­tions. One tele­vi­sion pro­duc­er report­ed­ly want­ed to do a fea­ture with duel­ing mete­o­rol­o­gists try[ing] to fig­ure out who’s hotter.”

Even after the city’s Chief Med­ical Exam­in­er had begun to announce aston­ish­ing­ly high death totals, and the morgue became so over­whelmed with bod­ies that they had to be stored in cooled trail­ers in the park­ing lot out­side, there was no con­sen­sus about the sever­i­ty of what was hap­pen­ing. Instead, the media fell prey to a bewil­der­ing mix of both skep­ti­cism and creduli­ty with regards to gov­ern­ment claims. On the one hand, a feel­ing that the Chief Med­ical Exam­in­er was over-dra­ma­tiz­ing the prob­lem led to some tru­ly breath­tak­ing shows of cyn­i­cism, as when the leg­endary colum­nist Mike Royko pub­lished a piece five days into the dis­as­ter — well after pho­tos of trail­ers full of bod­ies had been broad­cast around the coun­try — under the head­line, Killer Heat Wave or Media Event?”

On the oth­er, Chicago’s media seemed quite ready to lend cre­dence to the announce­ments com­ing out of the office of May­or Richard M. Daley, whose admin­is­tra­tion turned to a nox­ious mix of denial and blam­ing the vic­tims, and vic­tims’ fam­i­lies and neigh­bors, as a kind of dam­age con­trol. In part, this was a reac­tion to the per­ceived PR fail­ures of May­or Michael Bilandic, who had received bru­tal media cov­er­age dur­ing a 1979 bliz­zard that shut down the city for days, and lost his sub­se­quent re-elec­tion campaign.

From the begin­ning, Daley’s City Hall looked to avoid that fate, aggres­sive­ly plac­ing blame for the mount­ing deaths on fail­ures of per­son­al respon­si­bil­i­ty, while insist­ing that it was tak­ing all appro­pri­ate human­i­tar­i­an mea­sures. Jour­nal­ists who were unsure of the Med­ical Exam­in­er’s method­ol­o­gy were ready to believe Daley — who, if it needs to be said, was not a doc­tor — that the death count was sure­ly much, much low­er. Coro­ners Don’t Always Agree on When Heat Kills,” report­ed the Tri­bune, despite a lack of evi­dence of such dis­agree­ment among actu­al coroners.

Adding insult to injury, Daley repeat­ed­ly sug­gest­ed that in the case where heat deaths could have been pre­vent­ed, it was the respon­si­bil­i­ty of fam­i­ly and neigh­bors — not pub­lic health ser­vices — to car­ry out pre­ven­ta­tive mea­sures. Many reporters ate this up, too: The Chica­go Sun-Times pub­lished an edi­to­r­i­al com­plain­ing that unfor­tu­nate­ly, we have been con­di­tioned through years of ever-bur­geon­ing gov­ern­ment to expect Big Broth­er will take care of all things.” At the Tri­bune, one head­line explained, Casu­al­ties of Heat Just Like Most of Us: Many Reject­ed Any Kind of Help.”

But if the city’s media failed to warn their read­ers and view­ers of just how seri­ous an event they were fac­ing, the city’s gov­ern­ment failed to ren­der to its cit­i­zens the help that might have actu­al­ly saved their lives. City Hall had guide­lines for declar­ing a hot weath­er emer­gency and mobi­liz­ing pre­ven­ta­tive resources, but ignored them and wait­ed until sev­er­al days into the heat wave — once bod­ies were already over­flow­ing the morgue — to put them in motion.

As a result, the city was com­plete­ly over­whelmed. Ambu­lance response time reg­u­lar­ly climbed to half an hour or more; 18 hos­pi­tals were put on bypass,” mean­ing they had no room left, send­ing ambu­lances scram­bling to find a place to deliv­er their patients. After­wards, stud­ies showed that res­i­dents con­tact­ed by city social work­ers had a reduced risk of death — but the num­ber of those work­ers fell far short of the num­bers needed.

For Kli­nen­berg, none of these fail­ures were acci­dents. Instead, they were the almost inevitable result of the entre­pre­neur­ial state” cre­at­ed by Daley in Chica­go and oth­er gov­ern­ment offi­cials across the country.

The essence of the entre­pre­neur­ial state is to treat cit­i­zens as if they were cus­tomers: “‘smart shop­pers’ of city ser­vices.” Pub­lic resources are cut in the name of effi­cien­cy (the city had near­ly 20 per­cent few­er health and human ser­vices staff in 1995 com­pared to 1991, for exam­ple), and those resources that remain are avail­able main­ly to city res­i­dents who can nav­i­gate a com­plex web of pub­lic agen­cies and pro­grams active­ly and with sophis­ti­ca­tion. Need­less to say, this leaves many of those most in need of those ser­vices — peo­ple who are poor or elder­ly or lack oth­er kinds of social and eco­nom­ic cap­i­tal — in a posi­tion where they are unable to access them.

But the dead were not just like us,” in the sense of being a rep­re­sen­ta­tive sam­ple of Chicagoans. It was over­whelm­ing­ly the poor, elder­ly and the iso­lat­ed who died. Just 67 of the vic­tims were under 55; blacks and sin­gle men were dra­mat­i­cal­ly over­rep­re­sent­ed, as were peo­ple liv­ing in high-crime neighborhoods.

Much atten­tion has been giv­en in the last year or so to the impact of one’s neigh­bor­hood on qual­i­ty of life. From seg­re­ga­tion to edu­ca­tion to hyper-polic­ing, we are prob­a­bly more aware than ever that place mat­ters. But Heat Wave, pub­lished over a decade ago, stretch­es this insight even fur­ther, show­ing that more than almost any­thing else, the neigh­bor­hood you lived in in the sum­mer of 1995 deter­mined your chances of sur­vival, in ways that went far beyond income or race

Per­haps the most well-known sec­tion of Kli­nen­berg’s book con­trasts North Lawn­dale and South Lawn­dale (bet­ter known as Lit­tle Vil­lage), adja­cent neigh­bor­hoods on the city’s West Side. North Lawn­dale, a deeply impov­er­ished, near­ly entire­ly black com­mu­ni­ty, faced one of the city’s high­est death rates dur­ing the heat wave. Lit­tle Vil­lage — a heav­i­ly Mex­i­can immi­grant area with more than its share of pover­ty, but also a bustling com­mer­cial dis­trict and dense net­work of civic orga­ni­za­tions — had one of the lowest.

Kli­nen­berg refers to this, and the fact that Lati­no neigh­bor­hoods across the city had extreme­ly low death rates, low­er even than whites in neigh­bor­hoods with high­er aver­age incomes, as the Lati­no health para­dox” — but three black areas on the South Side also had among the low­est rates in the city. At its best, Heat Wave cuts through the over­sim­pli­fi­ca­tion that black or low-income neigh­bor­hoods must always be dys­func­tion­al. Instead, what mat­ters is the exis­tence of a healthy neigh­bor­hood social life, enabled by neigh­bor­hood busi­ness­es, well-sup­port­ed civic orga­ni­za­tions and free­dom from a debil­i­tat­ing fear of crime.

Of course, eco­nom­ic and pol­i­cy trends orig­i­nat­ing far before the 1995 heat wave, and con­tin­u­ing to this day, are dra­mat­i­cal­ly under­min­ing exact­ly those safe­guards in too many com­mu­ni­ties, in Chica­go and around the coun­try. Ongo­ing retail and cred­it redlin­ing, not to men­tion falling wages, have starved local com­mer­cial dis­tricts; rad­i­cal­ly reduced gov­ern­ment sup­port for ser­vice orga­ni­za­tions has frayed the social fab­ric, and crime rates remain far too high in many places, despite an over­all decline.

Despite its fail­ure to respond fast enough to the 1995 heat wave, Kli­nen­berg doc­u­ments that the Daley admin­is­tra­tion did qui­et­ly change some of its emer­gency response poli­cies to be more pre­pared for the next time. Still, it’s hard not to con­clude that the city’s neigh­bor­hoods are vul­ner­a­ble to anoth­er dead­ly heat wave, or some oth­er cri­sis we haven’t seen yet, 20 years lat­er. And if such a dis­as­ter does come, the out­come will be as unnat­ur­al as the first.

Daniel Hertz is a senior fel­low at City Obser­va­to­ry, an urban pub­lic pol­i­cy think tank.
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