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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