The 1995 Heat Wave: Autopsy of Disaster


July 9, 2002

Contact: Pat Vaughan Tremmel at 847/491-4892 or at

The 1995 Heat Wave: Autopsy of Disaster

EVANSTON, ILL.— Remember the 1995 heat wave in Chicago? Indoor thermometers in high-rises topped 120 degrees even when windows were open. Thousands of cars broke down in the street. Roads buckled. And power outages rendered air conditioners and lights useless.

Few, however, remember the scale of human devastation during that catastrophic week, according to Eric Klinenberg, assistant professor of sociology at Northwestern University and author of the new book Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago , (University of Chicago Press).

The book primarily tries to answer two questions that got buried or not addressed at all, at least initially, in the following reports, press coverage and city news conferences: Why did so many people die alone during the heat wave, and why were those deaths so easy to overlook or forget?

“How can it be that 700 people, most of them old, alone and impoverished, died during that heat wave?” Klinenberg asks. “They died alone — with windows sealed shut and doors locked. They often weren’t discovered for days and were found only because neighbors smelled something strange or because mail piled up.”

To Klinenberg the heat wave serves as a barometer of contemporary urban conditions that shape the way we live and die, clarifying huge, largely ignored cracks in the city’s social foundation. The investigation of the people, places, and institutions most affected by the heat wave, he says, points to a city in crisis, to a story very different from the disjointed news snapshots of such crises and from the larger narrative of America’s famous “city of neighborhoods.”

The book outlines the conditions that proved most consequential to the tragedy. They include the literal social isolation of poor senior citizens, particularly in the city’s most violent areas; the degradation of and rising conflict in urban hotel residences, which constitute a large but often ignored sector of the low-income housing market; the changes in social service delivery and the threats to public health and welfare stemming from privatization and other radical shifts in local government administration; and the new social ecological conditions of neighborhoods abandoned by businesses as well as local governments and depopulated by residents.

Heat waves receive little public attention not only because they fail to generate the massive property damage and fantastic images produced by other weather-related disasters, but also because their victims are primarily social outcasts from whom we customarily turn away, according to the book.

Klinenberg was struck by how ensuing accounts about the heat wave often could not see far beyond the killer heat’s role in the overwhelming loss of life.

“The telling and analyses of events related to the heat wave allowed it to quickly fade into the grand narrative of affluence and prosperity that dominates accounts of U.S. cities in the 1990s,” he says. “Public discourse about the summer of 1995 lacks the insights into the condition of the city that the disaster might have exposed.”

The book covers every angle of those seven days in July — from media coverage to the mayor’s pronouncements to the personal stories of those who suffered in both good neighborhoods and bad.

Klinenberg looked at the homes of the decedents, the neighborhoods, and buildings where death was concentrated or prevented, the city agencies that forged an emergency response system, the Medical Examiners Office, and scientific research centers that searched for causes of death, and the newsrooms where reporters and editors symbolically reconstructed the event.

“Hundreds of Chicago residents died alone during the heat wave and were assisted by two potentially life-saving interventions — attention from state-sponsored service providers and artificial cooling — only after their bodies were delivered to Cook County Morgue,” the book concludes. Among the victims, the bodies and belongings of roughly 170 people went unclaimed until the public Administrators Office initiated an aggressive campaign to seek out relatives who had not noticed that a member of their family was missing.

In an overview of recent Chicago heat waves, the book offers an explanation of why even well-executed heat emergency policies are insufficient to remove the risk of future catastrophes. Extreme exogenous forces such as the heat will prove deadly again as long as extreme forms of vulnerability, isolation, and deprivation remain typical features or the urban environment, Klinenberg says.

Among the problems the book lists as part of a formula for disaster, even in the absence of heat, for all major cities:

• The rise of an aging population of urban residents who live alone, often without proximate or reliable sources of routine contact and social support. The elderly, especially isolated men and those who outlive their social networks or become homebound and ill, often suffer from social deprivation and role displacement in later years. Overwhelmed with pressing anxieties about making ends meet, avoiding proximate dangers, maintaining vitality in unhealthy environments, or losing informal sources of support, they are likely to express stress in their relationships and pull apart the social ties they need to preserve.

• The increasing spatial concentration and social separation of the affluent and the impoverished who cluster in exclusive or excluded parts of the city at the expense of the expendable. The affluent benefit from their exclusive and segregated environments, while concentrated deprivation and abandonment compounds the risks of crime, disease, violence, and isolation for the poor. At the same time, impoverished people and regions are kept out of sight.

• The government agencies best positioned to redress the inequities and protect the most vulnerable urban residents have done little to help. “The federal government’s simultaneous expansion of disaster relief efforts subsidize property holders—often at the direct expense of social programs for the disadvantaged—coupled with the reduction of national programs to provide home energy support to the poor is perhaps the most egregious example of how the welfare state has protected the privileged while leaving the vulnerable to fend for themselves,” Klinenberg says.

• The delegation of key health and support services to paramilitary governmental organizations, such as the fire and police departments, where administrators and officers are rarely committed to “soft Service” work. And department infrastructure is poorly suited to the jobs.

• The role of news institutions in the symbolic politics of cities. “The heat wave offered editors and reporters opportunities to provide a blend of spectacular coverage and serious, street-level reports,” Klinenberg says. “But several of most probing and insightful accounts were overshadowed by prominent and sensational photographs, dramatic but misleading headlines, and false political debates that obscured the social aspects of the disaster.”

Klinenberg talked with a number of newspaper staff who told him that the most in-depth reporting on heat wave victims never even made it on the printed page because the “summer story” no longer seemed relevant in the fall. “How many other stories about deprivation and suffering in the city are dismissed for similar reasons in the everyday world of the newsroom?” he asks.

The looming threat of catastrophe and the quotidian crises that mark our time make this an opportune moment to develop new humanistic approaches to the study of life and death, the book concludes. Klinenberg stresses that the project, as this account of disaster in the city illustrates, is far more than an academic task,

“When hundreds of people die behind locked doors and sealed windows, out of contact with friends, family, community groups, and public agencies, everyone is implicated in their demise.”

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