It’s been 20 years (July 12-16, 1995), since the heatwave here in Chicago that killed over 700 people and changed the way the city handles extreme weather.
I was in summer school following my freshman year at DePaul University but this hit way too close to home.
My (now late), elderly grandparents were living in a 2nd floor walk up apartment on 78th street just east of Wabash in Chatham. They were in their mid 80’s and had been married for over 50 years. My grandmother was in good shape but arthritic but my granddad (whom I named for), had been having some dementia issues for a few years and though he appeared physically strong, on second thought wasn’t as strong as we thought.
That second floor apartment could get warm on the best of days and those triple digits the second week of July weren’t the best of days.
For reasons unbeknownst to the rest of us, my grandparents were not using the room air conditioner that my (now late), uncle had gotten for them. So when they got ill during the heatwave and my grandmother called 911, members of the Chicago Fire Department got it going for them.
But this spelled the beginning of the end for my grandfather.
I remember one of those heatwave nights (probably the first one), driving with my mother, following my aunt and uncle and trying to find a hospital to take my grandfather to. It was the first time I ever heard the term “bypass”, meaning a hospital was not taking patients due to them being overwhelmed.
I remember driving west bound down 95th Street to Evergreen Park and that hospital telling us “they were on bypass” and I remember thinking what has this city come to that a hospital wasn’t taking patients?
We drove around that evening going to several hospitals, until we were able to get my grandfather into the hospital down on 22nd Street near McCormick Place and it was past midnight by then.
I had never felt such despair up until that evening, it was so hot, the hospitals we went to were just chaos (above and beyond normal hospital chaos), and my granddad was really sick. I mean outside of my (now late), dad, this was the strongest man I knew and he was a shell of himself and we couldn’t help him.
Eventually my granddad made somewhat of a recovery but after that night he was never the same, mentally he was gone, physically his strength was more struggle than brawn.
He would pass a year later but we went from hospital to nursing home back to hospital when he would fall (and that was often), and finally to another nursing home where he passed the next July.
That heatwave really showed that there were “two cities” within the city limits, one where the system failed people who needed it most and the other for those who could take care of themselves.
I was still living at home back then and we had central air (running around the clock), and still the house was over 80 degrees but at night during the heatwave it would still be in the mid 80’s outside at 10 at night.
But so many people didn’t have air conditioning or like my grandparents didn’t use it for whatever reason. I knew of other elderly people at the time who lived “in the hood” and were scared to open their windows due to the crime in their areas.
Our family did “well being checks” on our people, but others went without being looked after. And even my family probably didn’t do all we could have.
Still the legacy of that week of heat was a systematic failure. Remember all of the bodies at the morgue?
I just remember the urban hospitals not being prepared and I hope this never happens again, thus why we remember those no longer with us and what went wrong that long hot week.
And its our responsibility to make sure none of this ever happens again.
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Filed under: Chicago