A man and his son visit a mass grave in Homewood, Illinois, where more than 40 forgotten and unclaimed victims of Chicago’s 1995 heat wave were buried. Credit: Beth A. Keiser/AP Photo

With the Great Chicago Fire Festival of the last couple years, the city made a peculiar spectacle of the anniversary of one of our worst disasters. City Hall poured cold water on the fest earlier this month by cutting off funding after this year, but perhaps the money would be better spent on an effort to commemorate a more recent catastrophe: the 1995 heat wave. Not to celebrate the five July days that left 739 people dead—but to prevent anything like it from happening again.

In his 2002 book Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago (University of Chicago Press), Eric Klinenberg, a Chicago native who now directs New York University’s Institute for Public Knowledge, first detailed the epic bureaucratic fuckups and societal meltdowns that amplified the weather’s deadly effect. A second updated edition came out this summer. In advance of his Chicago Humanities Festival lecture on Sunday, “Chicago’s Heat Wave 20 Years Later,” Klinenberg spoke over the phone from his NYU office about his findings—and shared his concerns about the potential deadly impact of future, global-warming-enhanced heat waves.

Robin Amer: The ‘95 heat wave killed more than 700 people. What was the first indication that something was wrong?

Eric Klinenberg: For meteorologists the first sign something was really wrong was their observation of an unusually dangerous weather system moving up from the southwest. It actually killed thousands of animals—chicken and cows—on its way to Chicago. Heat waves kill more Americans than all the other natural disasters combined, and yet we typically don’t treat them as if they’re public health hazards. Or at least we didn’t at the time.

But we still don’t have the same kind of warning systems that we do for hurricanes.

Right. If a hurricane were on its way to Chicago, meteorologists would start tracking it days before. They would cut into national television to show people where the weather system was going, when it might arrive. We didn’t do that with heat waves. When the heat actually hit, most people in the city were surprised by how severe it was. We’re talking about a heat index of 126 [degrees Fahrenheit]—that was the highest reported.

Something like 250,000 homes lost access to power, some for 48 hours. The plates on bridges were expanding; roads were buckling; train lines were melting. The city kind of grounded to a halt. But the first big sign that something truly catastrophic was happening was when the medical examiner’s office just west of the Loop got overwhelmed with the sheer number of dead bodies being delivered.

Was the city prepared to handle something of this magnitude?

No one would say that the city was prepared. There is no controversy about that whatsoever. The mayor was on vacation; the health commissioner was on vacation; the fire commissioner, whose job was to manage the paramedics, was on vacation. Chicago had a heat plan, but no one remembered to use it. The city didn’t call for a [state of] emergency. When hospitals filled up with thousands of patients in excess of the norm, the city did not bring in an adequate backup of ambulances or paramedics. As a result lots of people who needed immediate medical attention didn’t get it. Hospitals went on bypass status, which means they literally closed their doors and stopped accepting patients into their emergency rooms. They were just overwhelmed.

Who bore the brunt of this disaster? In Heat Wave you compare different pairs of Chicago neighborhoods—Auburn Gresham and Englewood, Little Village and North Lawndale—that are in some ways demographically similar but whose populations were very differently affected. Why were neighborhoods like Englewood more vulnerable than neighborhoods like Auburn Gresham?

At the time people said places that had high [numbers of] deaths suffered because people [in these neighborhoods] didn’t care about each other. My research refutes that. Englewood and North Lawndale had such high death rates because they had a devastated social infrastructure. They had suffered from decades of abandonment, and as a result they were depleted environments. These are places that lack the kinds of commercial amenities that most Chicagoans take for granted. There are no big grocery stores that have air-conditioning; there is no movie theater.

These neighborhood amenities are especially important in drawing older people out of their homes. If you’re old, frail, and vulnerable and you live in a neighborhood that lacks those amenities, you’re more likely to hunker down in your home. In a heat wave, when your apartment is baking, that is a formula for a disaster.

The thing about heat deaths is they’re so easy to prevent. All you need to do is get exposure to air-conditioning or cool water and you can survive. Once a heat-related illness sets in, people often lose their capacity to sense that they’re overheating. So isolation is a real risk factor. If you are alone, you might not realize what’s happening to you until it is too late.

What was the official reckoning after this tragedy?

This is where the politics get real thorny. The City Council refused to hold hearings about what happened. Instead there was a mayoral commission of handpicked experts who issued a report about what went wrong. The report had many useful recommendations, which the city has now implemented, and I applaud the city for that. But it also neglected to treat a number of important issues. Most cynically, the report was called something like “The Mayor’s Report on Extreme Weather.” It had an image of a snowflake on the cover. The phrase “heat wave” does not occur.

The phrase “heat wave” does not appear in the official report about the heat wave?

[It doesn’t appear] on the cover of the report. It’s disguised to look like something else.

What are the risks something like this could happen again?

The city has now developed an exemplary heat emergency plan. When it gets hot in Chicago, city leaders take it very seriously. They track the heat in advance; they work with local journalists to make sure everyone is putting out a public health message. They have developed a list of vulnerable people–older, isolated, sick–and they call people to check in on them. They provide transportation to get people to cooling centers. I applaud the city for that.

What doesn’t Chicago have? Does anyone in Chicago think utilities like ComEd are prepared for the kind of demand that you will see if there’s a heat wave that lasts not three days but two weeks or three weeks? I don’t think anybody in Chicago believes that. Does anyone in Chicago think that city services are providing better support for very poor, old, vulnerable people, especially those who live in the most depleted and dangerous neighborhoods? I don’t think anyone Chicago believes that.

Chicago is better prepared for a heat wave, but the kinds of heat waves climate scientists predict we’ll see with global warming are hotter, more frequent, and longer lasting than the heat wave we saw in 1995. I don’t know anyone who believes Chicago or any other city is prepared for that.  v

Klinenberg speaks Sun 10/25, noon to 1 PM, at the University of Chicago Logan Center for the Arts, 915 E. 60th, tickets.chicagohumanities.org, $12, CHF members $9, students and teachers $5. Book signing to follow.