The 1995 heat wave reflected Chicago's "geography of vulnerability"

The 1995 heat wave reflected Chicago's "geography of vulnerability"

Chicago is in the midst if a week of soaring temperatures and high humidity. Heat indices could hit 115 today and Thursday, the National Weather Service warned in an advisory.

Representatives from City of Chicago agencies have repeatedly asked residents to check in on their neighbors; the focus is on isolated seniors, those in poor health and persons with disabilities, John Phieffer, a Department of Family and Support Services commissioner, said at a recent press conference.

"I cannot emphasize enough how important it is for our residents to be vigilant in their communities ... our department and our sister agencies depend on our residents to provide us with information on the well being of neighbors and family members," Phieffer said.

Sixteen years ago this month another powerful heat wave blanketed Chicago, and efforts to keep the elderly safe proved insufficient. Hundreds of Chicagoans, most of them elderly, died due to heat-related illness during the July 1995 weather event.

The heat wave then began around July 12, 1995. Temperatures, humidity and ozone levels rose together, making the city "feel tropical, as if Chicago were in Fiji or Guam," the sociologist Eric Klinenberg recounts in his 2002 book Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago. One day's heat index hit 126 degrees.

Between July 14 and July 20 of 1995, 485 Chicago residents died due to heat-related causes,  according to official city figures Klinenberg cites, bringing the total deaths for that month to 521. (Epidemiologists estimated the number who died due to the weather was higher--739 more Chicagoans died during the week of July 14 and July 20 than during a typical week for that month, according to the book.)

What Klinenberg calls the "geography of vulnerability" to heat death was "hauntingly similar" to Chicago's economic and racial stratification and patterns of inequality. "Heat wave deaths were concentrated in the low-income, elderly, African-American, and violent regions of the metropolis," he writes.

The isolated elderly, like residents living in single-room occupancy hotels or seniors who had "aged in place" were also at risk, as were residents in high-crime areas.

The city's official tally of 521 deaths during July 1995 shows that in raw numbers, white residents and black residents died in nearly equal totals--252 white people, and 256 African Americans, died. Those numbers, however, obscured a more alarming reality.

African Americans in all age categories were more likely to die than their white counterparts during the 1995 heat wave, Klinenberg reports. Nearly two black residents aged 85 and older died because of the heat for every one white resident in the same age group; the overall ratio was 1.5 heat-related deaths for black people for every one death of someone who was white. A table included in the book adjusted the data to death-rates-per-100,000 people to highlight the trend:

Fuller Park, on the South Side, saw the equivalent of 92 heat-related deaths per 100,000 residents, the highest rate in Chicago. In Woodlawn, the ratio was 73 heat-related deaths per 100,000 people. Of the top 10 community areas with heat-related deaths adjusted to a population of 100,000 people, 8 were overwhelmingly African-American, with 5 of those communities being 99 percent black.

At the same time, Latinos in Chicago fared much better than other racial groups, according to Klinenberg. They represented just 2 percent of the heat-related deaths that year, but 23 percent of the city's total population.

Klinenberg offers two primary reasons to explain this, and he compares adjacent communities on the Southwest Side--North Lawndale and South Lawndale, or Little Village, to make his case. North Lawndale and Little Village were in 1995 black and Latino areas, respectively, as they are today.

For all the challenges a working class, immigrant-heavy neighborhood like Little Village faced in 1995, it had not had to grapple with what Klinenberg calls the "particular constraints of ghettoization," as had black residents of Chicago. Those constraints left a frayed social fabric in poor black neighborhoods bearing the burden of "rapid and continuous abandonment of institutions and residents ... arson and violence." A "local social ecology" that could have protected seniors--that did protect seniors elsewhere--was destroyed.

Second, and related to the first reason, was Little Village's status as a hub for new immigrants to Chicago as well as Mexican Americans--a status that continually "replenished its human resources and regenerated the commercial economy of retailers and local small businesses." North Lawndale, by contrast, had lost population for decades when the 1995 heat wave struck.

Klinenberg writes that Little Village had 4 heat-related deaths per 100,000 residents. North Lawndale saw 40 per 100,000 residents.

Chicago has changed a lot over the last 16 years. But poverty, inequality and segregation remain. Is the city in 2011 as vulnerable to heat, and heat-related tragedies, in the same way it was in 1995? Let us know what you think in the comment section below.

© Community Renewal Society 2011

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