Heat Wave 1995


heat wave


The heat wave that hit Chicago in July of 1995 was one of the worst urban tragedies in modern history. It was scorching, sweltering. It was unbelievable heat, and high humidity, combined with poor air quality. During the five-day period, of July 12- 16, temperatures were well over 100 degrees, with heat indices over 120 degrees.  There was no relief at night.

It wasn’t just Chicago.  There were more than 3000 human deaths attributed to the heat wave in the midwest.  In Chicago, 739 deaths were determined to be heat-related, but this is not counting people who may have suffered and died later.

Eric Klinenberg, author of the 2002 book Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago,  traces  the “map of vulnerability”  along poverty lines in the city.  The victims were mostly poor, African-American,  and elderly people. Many of them died alone.

In the heat waves of the past (1930’s and 1950’s)  people could still sleep on front porches, or camp out along the lakefront. In 1995, it was a different city.  Crime and fear of crime kept people inside, afraid to even open the windows. Many people had no air conditioning, or could not afford to turn it on.

Even those working in air-conditioned offices felt the heat.  Busses and trains were stifling.  And there were power outages.  Hospitals were unprepared for all the people with heat-related problems–including dehydration, heat stroke and heat exhaustion.  Police and paramedics were overwhelmed.

It was a real disaster.   Here is a personal account from The Vociferous Envoy, a fellow blogger at ChicagoNow.

In the 20 years since the Heat Wave, Chicago has  learned to do better. It has become a model for how a big city handles extreme weather.  City officials have contingency plans. Community organizations encourage residents to check in on their neighbors. People have become more weather-aware. We know extreme heat and cold can be dangerous.

We are learning how  big cities like Chicago can become  “heat islands” — All the asphalt, brick, concrete and steel attract heat, and pollution from automobiles, factories and air-conditioners traps it.  We are still vulnerable, and even more dependent on technology.

It may seem  strange  to talk about a deadly heat wave in this cool, wet summer, the coolest July in over 30 years. But there have been  heat waves in India,  Japan,  Western US,  Europe and the UK this year.  Climate change and extreme weather are affecting us all.


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Filed under: seasons, weather

Tags: heat wave 1995


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  • I was house hunting at the time and wondered what I was getting into, especially after when driving back to arrange my move, there were radio reports about importing refrigerator trucks for the corpses. However, still better than having to go through 160 inch snows at my former location.

    But there were some reports that El Nino is really getting going, so maybe we'll have this weather in December again.

    I hear in the background that the per diem Channel 7 weatherman is shilling something sponsored by Disney, so we know what is important, now ;-(.

  • In reply to jack:

    Thanks for reading, Jack. I was in Ann Arbor and it was really hot there, too, but not 106 degrees--and at least, there was some breeze.
    Chicagoans really suffered, and the official response was dismissive, at first. "It's hot--what do you expect?"

    Have you read Mr. Klinenberg's book? He writes on the effects of climate change, too.

    Yes, there are reports on strong El Nino developing this year. More about that, soon...

  • In reply to Weather Girl:

    No. But since Chicago hasn't had 106 degrees since, I don't know if any climate change theory is definitive. The current climate seems to be that the front always extends along U.S. 6, and I'm on the north side of that.

  • Thanks for a marvelous post about a not-marvelous memory. When I see what seems like over-reaction to the latest heat wave, I'll try to keep in mind that it's better than the under-reaction that the killer one received.

  • In reply to Margaret H. Laing:

    Thanks for reading! Yes, the Heat Wave was a tragic lesson in what could go wrong.

  • I remember being so stunned at what happened. I hope we have learned and nothing like this will happen again.

  • In reply to Kathy Mathews:

    Yes, they are still learning....

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