I am writing this review in the midst of a Chicago heat wave, almost exactly seven years after the heat disaster that killed nearly 800 people in the city. The Chicago Tribune‘s multicolored weather page adorns the forecast with a special “excessive heat watch” symbol–an exclamation point lodged in a red circle–newscasters earnestly tell us to stay inside and take it easy, and veteran black radio deejay Herb Kent, the Kool Gent, chats on-air about liquor and caffeinated drinks being dehydrating and the need to drink lots of “good old H
I remember the 1995 disaster well, but for me personally it was a period of intensive work on my last book, cooped up indoors 24/7, with roaring air-conditioning, punctuated by horrified reading of the Tribune‘s coverage of rolling city power outages and the growing spectacle of hundreds of heat-related deaths, with the bodies piling up and overwhelming the city morgue’s capacity. Suspicious of the Tribune because of its long history of rightist and racist slants, I scrutinized the stories to see if the city was, as usual, shortchanging its black South and West sides on services, but couldn’t figure anything out. Sociologist Eric Klinenberg, a young Chicago native, was out of the country during the disaster, but has since then more than made up for lost time. His Heat Wave is a trenchant, multilayered and well-written social autopsy of the disaster.
Since finishing Heat Wave, I’ve been obsessively asking friends, neighbors, students and colleagues if they were in town in July 1995, and if so, what they remember. Most of my middle-class interlocutors were as insulated as I was, in cooled rooms, and only vaguely remember the period because of media coverage. But many younger people, who were then living on student or first-job budgets, told tales of extreme misery and multiple palliative strategies–double bills at air-conditioned theaters, plunging into Lake Michigan every possible nonworking hour, bunking with better-off friends and relatives, long drives in cars with AC and, of course, all the old tricks with cold water, towels and fans. One conservative young woman described her sudden comprehension, lying sweaty and wretched in her sweltering apartment, listening to neighbors’ AC compressors turning on, of the ressentiment and violence of some inner-city dwellers.
In fact, Klinenberg explains, aside from some vigilante actions against city workers sent to reseal the 3,000 open fire hydrants liberated by kids, poor Chicagoans were far too enervated by the hot, wet blanket enveloping the city to commit mayhem. The real criminals of the heat crisis, Klinenberg makes clear, were the federal, state and local officials who, in the words of Robert Scates, the bitter black thirty-year veteran emergency medical services director, committed “murder by public policy.”
But first we need to come to terms with the epidemiological realities of heat crises. Extreme heat, Klinenberg explains, tends not to be taken as seriously as other weather and human disasters–hurricanes, floods, earthquakes, blizzards, plane crashes. But “more people die in heat waves than in all other extreme events combined,” and the ’95 crisis has “no equal in the record of US heat disasters.” Because the body’s defenses “can take only about forty-eight hours of uninterrupted exposure to such heat before they break down,” Klinenberg observes, area ambulance services and emergency rooms were soon overwhelmed, and at the height of the catastrophe, half of Chicago’s hospitals went on bypass status–turned all new patients away. Most Chicagoans saw the grisly televised scenes of emergency workers falling prostrate with heatstroke, of police cars backed up clear around the block, waiting to deliver cadavers to nine forty-eight-foot refrigerated trucks donated by a local meatpacking firm when the morgue ran entirely out of body-storage space, and heard and read about the record-breaking murderousness of the disaster. But Klinenberg notes that only months after the catastrophe, Chicagoans reacted to his queries with “detachment and disavowal.” Not only did they, and the press whose interpretations they were reflecting, wish to relegate the disaster to a nonhappening but many, following Mayor Richard Daley’s lead, asserted that the death figures weren’t “really real,” that “the massive mortality figures…had somehow been fabricated, or that the deaths were simply not related to the heat.”