1995 Chicago Heat Wave

1995 Chicago Heat Wave

How do we know that the 1995 Chicago heat wave is a disaster? Explain the chronic conditions which enabled this disaster

It was the month of July in the year 1995, in Chicago. The entire city felt like it was tropical, almost like it was Fiji or Guam, and to add to the discomfort of the heat, there was an additional layer of pollution hovering above the city. The temperature at the time of the first day of the heat wave, on July 13 had touched a high of 106 degrees, and in additional, the heat index which is a combination of heat and humidity that measures the temperature a typical person would feel, went up to above 120 degrees. The nights too were no less hot: the night temperatures varied from the low to the mid 80s, and Chicago's residents were slowly but steadily getting baked in the intense heats never experienced before. Energy, of course, was an emergency requirement, and as more and more residents used their air conditioners and fans to cool temperatures, power grids started to fail, and in more than 49,000 households, there was no power. (Dying alone: An interview with Eric Klinenberg)

People took to the beaches, while some others used fire hydrants to douse themselves with water. This was not a very good idea as this brought the water pressure down, and this meant that several households were deprived of water, as well as of electricity. Of course, emergency crews were sent to close the more than 3,000 water hydrants around Chicago, but they were sent back by citizens who pelted rocks and stones at them. Gradually, the entire city was turning into a disaster area. The intense and unprecedented heat started to buckle the roadways, and railway tracks to warp. This in turn caused long and inordinate commuter and freight delays, and city workers were deployed to water down bridges, so that they would not expand, thereby causing them to lock. Scholl children who had to travel in buses in this intense heat started to suffer symptoms of dehydration and they had to be hosed down buy the Fire Department. In the meantime, many hundreds of young people had started to suffer heat related symptoms, but it was the elderly and the infirm, especially those who lived all alone that was the most vulnerable to the intense heat. (Dying alone: An interview with Eric Klinenberg)

By July 14, thousands of Chicagoans had developed severe heat reaction, and most of them had to be hospitalized. However, hospitals were all under severe strain, and unable to cope with the heavy influx of patients. Some of the hospitals even had to close their doors to new patients, and some ambulances had to drive around for miles to find an open bed for the patient they were carrying. It was the Cook County Medical Examiners Office that was the worst affected, as this is where police transported hundreds of bodies for autopsies. Just three days into the Chicago heat wave, hundreds of bodies were being brought in for autopsy, and police had to wait for three hours and more for someone to receive the body hat they had brought. The entire scene was gruesome and beyond belief, and for such a thing to be happening in the middle of a modern American city was simply inconceivable. This was a disaster. (Dying alone: An interview with Eric Klinenberg)

In all probability, certain chronic conditions were the direct cause of this terrible heat wave in Chicago. It has been said that it was all an unfortunate blend of extreme weather conditions, political mismanagement, a lack of appropriate public policy, and the isolation and the abandonment of vulnerable city residents that led to the loss of water, widespread power outages, thousands of hospitalizations, and more than 739 deaths in one single overwhelming week. It must be remembered that the affluent in Chicago managed to escape for the most part unscathed by the tragedy; it was the city's poorer sections of people, who lived in ghettos who had to bear the entire brunt of the conditions caused by the heat. Chicago's segregated African-American people, living in ghettos, were effectively trapped in lethal conditions, while the young who tried to open up fire hydrants to escape the heat were penalized by the police, who apparently thought cracking down on these people was a much better idea than that of helping the elderly, the infirm and the others who were suffering. (When Chicago Baked)

In John M. Buchanan's words, while the residents of Lake Forest and Deerfield prayed that the power for their air conditioners would not be cut off, the poor and the reclusive elderly, who had lived in fear most of their lives, and who would keep their doors and windows closed out of necessity and out of anxiety, started to die in their own ghettos, gradually, but steadily. Buchanan says, "Who was to blame? City government? The mayor? A communications system that failed to get word of city cooling centers out quickly enough? Or did the welfare system fail?" He further says that people tried to place the blame squarely on the poor residents, who apparently did not look after themselves, and that was the reason why they started to die. (Buchanan, 6)

Perhaps, feels William H. Hooke, city officials can be blamed; because it was these people who failed to issue an adequate warning about the heat wave conditions and how to save oneself from the heat, until the last day of the heat wave. In an analysis of the 1995 heat wave, Klinenberg proposes that the affected community must take the responsibility of analyzing the responses and the results of a disaster immediately after it has occurred, in a sort of 'social autopsy', as this would allow community leaders to generate a better understanding of public health, especially in such cases where a disaster of such immense could have been prevented with the adequate and prior know-how. These, according to Klinenberg, are the results of the social autopsy of the tragedy: this event could lead to the development of a proper checklist for a disaster response plan. Today, groups like the Department on Ageing have compiled comprehensive lists of elderly people who live alone, so that when there is an impending disaster, officials could be sent to these residences in order to alert them at the very outset. There is also today available a 'heat line', which will give out updated safety information for the public. In addition, today, there is in place a new emergency response monitoring system, which will monitor emergency rooms and the activity of paramedics in times of disaster. (Hooke; Rogers, 141)

2. How did the city government and local media fail in their response to the heat wave? Explain how the government and media framed the disaster.

However, it must be remembered that the city government as well as local media failed miserably in their response to the heat wave of Chicago, 1995. Take for example, the time before the disaster, when there were predictions of the need to address urban inequality. All that the government managed to achieve was to simply put it out of sight, and therefore, out of mind. In Klinenberg's words, "The collective refusal to address poverty and isolation in Chicago during the prosperous 1990's was a crucial component of the cultural and political context of the heat wave." (Klinenberg, 22)

As mentioned earlier, the July 1995 heat wave was a disaster of immense proportions, and about 485 to 765 Chicagoans were killed during this disaster, out of which about seventy three percent of those who were killed belonged to the age group of above sixty five, and most of these elderly people lived all alone. About one hundred and seventy bodies were left unclaimed by relatives, until the Public Administrator's Office was able to track down "relatives who had not noticed that a member of their family was missing," tragically enough. Furthermore, almost a third or a fourth of these bodies was left unclaimed even after the intervention of the Public Administration, and these were subsequently buried in a sort of mass grave. Who indeed was to blame for all these completely avoidable deaths? Was it the government, or was it the administration? Take for example the words of the Commissioner of Human Services, who went public with his unsympathetic statement, "people...died because they neglected themselves." Perhaps it is not individual psychopathology that is responsible for the large number of deaths in the disaster, but rather, it is the social institutions and the social conditions that put these people in such pitiable conditions in the first place that may be held responsible, feels Klinenberg. Furthermore, Klinenberg lays the primary focus on isolation, urban neighborhoods, city services' structure, government public relations, and the framing carried out by the news media as being some of the more important components of the 1995 heat wave disaster.…