Chicago, 1995: When hot weather became serious

July 21, 2011

"Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody ever does anything about it."

Mark Twain said that. Ordinarily, Chicagoans would have laughed along with this famous bit of wisdom. But in July of 1995, few people were in the mood for humor. The hot weather was becoming serious.

It began on Wednesday, July 12. That day the O'Hare temperature hit 98. On Thursday the high was 106, a new all-time record. Friday got to 102, and Saturday topped off at 99. It was humid, too--none of that "dry heat" business like Phoenix or Vegas.

Now it was Sunday. No rain in the forecast. No cool front. The weather bureau said that temperatures might bounce back over 100 again.

Out in the neighborhoods people were dying--literally. The papers said the toll had already passed 300. Many of the victims were older people who had no air conditioning.

Chicago had suffered through a major heat wave in 1934. There had been fewer deaths then. And air conditioning had been rare in those days.

But crime had been rare, too. Sixty years before, people in stifling apartments could leave their windows wide open all night without fear. Thousands had beaten the heat by sleeping in parks. Those options weren't practical in 1995.

One thing hadn't changed. As soon as temperatures closed in on 100, private citizens began opening fire hydrants. Once again there were pictures of kids in bathing suits running through the spray. That was as much of a heat wave cliche as the guy frying an egg on the sidewalk.

The city had opened eleven cooling stations. Though the program was widely publicized, few people were showing up. Meanwhile, the county morgue was overwhelmed with heat-related deaths. Refrigerated trailers were pressed into service to store the backlog of bodies.

Sunday, July 16. The morning mercury climbed to 94. It hovered there, then slowly dropped. Monday's temperatures were in the 80s. The worst was over.

The final death count was over 700--there was no way of getting an exact figure. A few critics blasted the Daley administration for its response to the crisis, or ComEd for the widespread power outages. But most Chicagoans were satisfied just to have cooler weather.