Heat-related deaths in Chicago up to 18

July 9, 2012

Scott Kanowsky

The death toll from the recent spate of hot weather in Chicago is now at 18, according to the Cook County medical examiner's office. An additional eight people were pronounced dead due to heat-related symptoms over the weekend.

But that's a far cry from the 1995 heat wave, which claimed more than 700 lives.

Eric Klinenberg is an expert on that deadly summer, which he chronicled in his widely-read book Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago. He credited the spike in deaths to, among other things, a lackluster response from city leaders — including many high-ranking officials who were absent on vacation during the heat wave.

"You really had the 'B' team running Chicago during a Grade 'A' disaster," he said.

This summer, however, Klinenberg said he has seen a much more appropriate response from city government, including an increase in the amount of cooling centers to regular check-ups on the elderly and disabled. 

In particular, he credited Chicagoans themselves for recognizing the consequences of not properly handling high heat. He even called the city a "model" for other metropolises.

"Now in Chicago, people really do check up on their neighbors more often, people do check up on their elderly," he said. "There's a high sensitivity to how dangerous heat waves can be."

Klinenberg said he still has concerns about the fates of those living in single-room occupancy dwelling hotels, which "house some of the most frail people in the city." Many in these units, he said, could still contract heat-related illnesses.

He added he worries how Chicago, and other cities worldwide, would deal with a potential increase in hot summers.

"The way we're living now is simply unsustainable. We can't endure summers like this year after year and we certainly can't endure summers that are sometimes hotter than this one. And that's what most people expect we're going to have," he said, referring to concerns about global warming.

Klinenberg called for more "sustainable cities" that place a premium on finding renewable energies and reducing overall energy consumption.