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1995 Chicago heat wave

Workers wheel a body to refrigerated trucks outside the Cook County morgue during the deadly Chicago heat wave of 1995.

Mike Fisher

What Chicago Can Learn From The 1995 Heat Wave

It’s been 25 years since the deadliest heat wave in U.S. history killed more than 700 people, namely elderly residents from Chicago’s poorest neighborhoods.

Temperatures in July 1995 reached record highs within a span of five days, but some city leaders downplayed the danger.

The handling of this public health crisis holds many lessons for today, as Chicago continues to grapple with community neglect and inequality impacting public health, most recently with the coronavirus pandemic.

WBEZ’s Reset spoke with sociologist Eric Klinenberg, author of Heat Wave, about the summer of ’95 and the lessons learned as we confront the COVID-19 pandemic.

On why it’s important to remember the 1995 heat wave

Eric Klinenberg: I'm from Chicago. I grew up in the city. I wrote my book because I was so puzzled by what happened. I mean, when I heard people discussing the events in Chicago, the story of the heat wave didn't make a lot of sense. Hundreds of people in the city of great neighborhoods dying — and dying alone in many cases — because of something we seem to experience all the time? And also this idea that so many people in the city had blown it out of proportion, as Mayor Daley said at the time, or, you know, there was this question of whether it was really real.

What I came away understanding is that this was not a natural disaster. This was a disaster of our own making that had everything to do with race and inequality and isolation and things that still plague Chicago today.

On how the heat wave became so deadly

Klinenberg: Meteorologists saw it coming and they warned that it could be dangerous. And if you think for a second about what happens when a hurricane is coming towards the city, you know, we stop the regular news programming. We have color coded maps. Everyone braces for the storm. Political officials, if they're away, come back to manage the crisis. We don't do that with heat. And so, as the heat was approaching Chicago, meteorologists were frying eggs on the sidewalk. News reporters were telling stories of air conditioning selling out in appliance stores. The mayor, the health commissioner, the fire commissioner — they were all on vacation and they stayed there. And no one issued an alert.

And when the heat settled in Chicago, the heat index was 126. The temperature was 106. This is not ordinary stuff. The power went out for a couple of days. Water was out in some neighborhoods. You can't pump water into high rise buildings. Thousands of people were getting sick and going to the emergency rooms. About half of the hospitals in Chicago had to close their doors.

Then, suddenly, there were so many bodies that there were nine or 10, 48-foot refrigerated trucks that went right to the Cook County morgue. It was overwhelming. And by the end of the week, 739 people died. This really stands as one of the major events in the history of Chicago.

On the city’s role in burying the story

Klinenberg: The city council in Chicago refused to hold public hearings. Seven hundred and thirty-nine people died in a week. The city had totally bungled the policy response. Everyone's implicated.

Next, the mayor organized his own commission. And what did they bury when they published the report? It did not have the words “heat wave” on the cover … And there's a picture of a snowflake on the image of this report. You know, it was a report that was designed to hide everything inside of it.

So it was just very hard for people to process what had happened. And you know what? What I have found is that the city lost its opportunity to really learn something from that week.

On how race and inequality played a role

Klinenberg: Everybody in Chicago knows that the city's organized around racial inequality and segregation. It's the structure of the city that we've created. And it just often goes unremarked upon, I think, especially in white communities. It's as if it's a natural part of the world and doesn't need to be commented upon. Or it's it's too painful to comment upon because it means that we're all implicated in it.

So do I think it's Mayor Daley's fault that so many people died in the heat wave? Not exactly. I mean, the city could have done a lot more to save lives. You know, it didn't declare a heat emergency until it was far too late. The policy response was horribly neglectful … So clearly, Daley could have done more.

But when I wrote my book, I became convinced that everyone in Chicago is implicated in this event because we created a city that is massively vulnerable for far too many people. And basically most of us in Chicago just let that order go. You know what? We're fine with that. And the city has failed to treat the emergency — the slow motion emergency — of racial segregation, of inequality of isolation with the seriousness that it deserves.

On the similarities between the heat wave and COVID-19

Klinenberg: These last few months I’ve watched the COVID-19 pandemic play out in a very similar pattern. The announcement comes. Political officials ignore the warning, dismiss them, question whether the thing is really real. The hospitals fill up. I mean, the inequality plays out along the same lines. It's been horrible for me to see it.

But just to go back to 1995 for a minute, you know, what really changed the debate in Chicago is Edmund Donoghue, who was the medical examiner at the time, started to issue public reports. “This number of people died today.” And the numbers are startling. And Mayor Daley reacted very badly to those reports. He thought, “This is a guy who is politicizing the story.”

I mean, again, think about the moment we're in right now with COVID-19. You know, scientists saying, “This is really dangerous. People are dying.” And Trump saying, “No, no, no, no, no. This is just the flu. It's not a big deal.”

I mean, it's haunting. It's like there's a playbook that we started in Chicago and here it is on the national stage. But in the city, what it meant in ’95 is that instead of getting every city agency activated, calling in extra paramedics, sending additional resources to the hospital, getting police officers, doing community policing work, knocking on doors, we were kind of acting business as usual. And there was a debate that was really like a public relations debate over whether the thing was really real rather than an urgent public health crisis. And then it was too late.

On what Chicago can learn from the heat wave moving forward

Klinenberg: It's very easy for me to take a public position that I'm against racism and I'm for social justice, whether it's in general or in the city of Chicago. It is very hard to actually change the way you govern and allocate resources to do something about it. 

One of the things I'm seeing as COVID-19 hits Chicago and other cities is that the most predictable patterns about race and inequality and vulnerability are playing out once again. And they're playing out because as much as we can talk about this stuff, if we don't commit resources and change the way we organize our neighborhoods, the level of protection that we provide for vulnerable people, improve the quality of health care, all these things, we're going to find ourselves in a situation in crisis after crisis. It doesn't matter whether the trigger is the weather or whether it's a novel coronavirus.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. Click the “play” button to hear the entire conversation.

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