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Families cool down by playing in Crown Fountain in Millennium Park during a heat wave in Chicago

Families cool down by playing in Crown Fountain in Millennium Park last week.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Mayor Johnson's response to heat wave sparks call for public hearing

On the fourth day of the heat wave last week, city officials closed cooling centers and libraries where those without air conditioning had sought relief.

Some Chicago alderpersons want Mayor Brandon Johnson’s administration to explain how the city responds to extreme weather, such as the recent heat wave that saw temperatures in the 90s and very warm nights.

Advocates for seniors, low-income residents, the homeless and other vulnerable people were outraged last week when Johnson’s administration closed most of the city’s cooling centers and all of Chicago’s libraries on Juneteenth, the fourth day of the dangerous heat wave.

“These are the types of things we have got to have our eye on at all times,” Ald. Maria Hadden (49th) said, noting climate change’s impact on hot weather. “It’s a rapidly changing situation.”

Hadden (49th), who chairs the City Council Environmental Protection and Energy Committee, Brian Hopkins (2nd), who chairs the council’s Committee on Public Safety and other alderpersons contacted by the Sun-Times support a public hearing on the city’s response to the heat wave.

“Effective communication and timely decision-making are critical in ensuring public safety during extreme weather conditions, and the current system’s shortcomings must be addressed,” according to a resolution calling for a public hearing filed by Ald. Andre Vasquez (40th).

The resolution, filed last week, also calls for improvements to the city’s role in extreme cold weather. The goal of the hearing has an “aim of improving coordination, transparency and timely public communication” in emergency situations related to weather.

Improved preparation for heat is important and timely as there will likely be additional heat waves this summer. Last August, O’Hare Airport recorded the first 100-degree day since 2012 during a late-summer two-day stretch that also saw potentially deadly readings of heat and humidity together.

Ald. Byron Sigcho-Lopez (25th) said he talked to Chicago Department of Family and Support Services Commissioner Brandie Knazze last week about expanding cooling centers and was told her department and others would look into it.

“We are always discussing and exploring new ways to maximize resources and operate most efficiently when it comes to ensuring the public safety and health of all Chicagoans,” according to a statement from Knazze’s spokesman.

The city’s Department of Family and Support Services manages community centers turned into cooling centers. Other city departments are involved in heat efforts that are led by the Office of Emergency Management.

Emergency management officials said they wait for word from the National Weather Service to issue specific warnings before they take additional steps on heat and cold. Organizations, including the grassroots group Peoples Response Network, urged the city to reevaluate the impact on the city’s most vulnerable people, including older residents and those with medical conditions.

Only one of six city-operated cooling centers were open on the Juneteenth holiday and all of Chicago’s more than 80 public libraries were closed.

City officials say the city’s parks provided more than 100 locations for people to cool off but advocates noted that many park fieldhouses lack air conditioning or accessibility for the disabled.

The city parks’ outdoor swimming pools just opened last week and many had limited hours on Juneteenth. Of the 77 pools, all but 10 were open at least part of the day Juneteenth.

Monica Dillon, a volunteer advocate for homeless and low-income people, said she visited 10 Northwest Side park district buildings listed as cooling sites on Juneteenth and only one had air conditioning. Half of the sites were not wheelchair accessible, she said.

Annie Gomberg, a volunteer with organizations advocating for the homeless and newly arrived migrants, said that a long-term coordinated plan is long overdue.

“We don’t need to have people suffering because we can’t get our act together,” Gomberg said.

Seniors without air conditioning are particularly vulnerable as deaths during past hot summers have shown, emphasized by the 1995 heat wave that claimed hundreds of lives.

“I was very disappointed to learn that the city closed most cooling centers on Juneteenth,” said Ginger Williams, who advocates for seniors in Edgewater. “That is outrageous and frightening to think that the administration would make such a potentially catastrophic decision.”

It’s unclear how many people fell sick or died due to the recent heat.

Cook County health officials said John H. Stroger Jr. Hospital did see an increase in emergency room patients with respiratory conditions last week. Those type of cases are exacerbated by heat and poor air quality.

The Vasquez resolution notes that the city should collect such data during extreme heat and cold weather events.

Documenting deaths can take time. The Cook County medical examiner has recorded just one heat death this year, a 68-year-old man, in late April. It may not be known for some months before heat-related deaths are recorded for June.

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