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July 30, 2002

Who matters, who doesn’t It’s 93 degrees at five in the afternoon in New York City, one of those days that leads everyone with any remaining brain cells to wonder why on earth anybody lives here.

Erik Klinenberg, in Slate, surveys heat-wave deaths in large cities over the last few decades. He remarks on the stunning inattention given to the deaths of, sometimes, hundreds of people at a time:

This summer, Chicago had recorded 27 heat-related deaths by July 22. That’s small by current standards. In one week of July 1995, 739 Chicago residents97the majority of them home alone97died in one of the greatest and least-known American disasters in modern history.

To place the 1995 heat wave in context, think of the great Chicago fire of 1871. It killed less than half as many people. Other recent catastrophes, such as the Northridge, Calif. earthquake of 1994 or Hurricane Andrew of 1992, killed one-tenth and one-twentieth the number of people, respectively. Yet several lists of the most fatal American weather events of the 1990s fail to include the heat wave. In the words of the New England Journal of Medicine, the Chicago disaster “was forgotten as soon as the temperatures fell.”

That’s generous. From the moment the local medical examiner began to report heat-related mortality figures, political leaders, journalists, and in turn the Chicago public have actively denied the disaster’s significance and questioned whether the deaths were97to use the popular local phrase97”really real.” Although so many city residents died that the coroner had to call in nine refrigerated trucks to store the bodies, skepticism about the trauma continues today. In Chicago, people still debate whether the medical examiner exaggerated the numbers and wonder if the crisis was a “media event” that the press had “propped up somehow.” The American Journal of Public Health definitively established that the medical examiner’s numbers actually undercounted the mortality by about 250 since hundreds of bodies were buried before they could be autopsied. But how many people read the American Journal of Public Health? For now, the heat wave stands as a nonevent97perhaps a footnote97in the grand narrative of affluence and revitalization that dominates accounts of urban life in the 1990s.

Of course, old people dying alone in little apartments don’t tend to produce the kind of media images that compel outpourings of assistance. Thus, as Klinenberg points out, the bodies of Chicago’s 1995 heat victims hadn’t even all been claimed before the House was voting to cut funding for the cheap and effective Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program. It’s not as if these people were important like, say, homeowners who build on barrier beaches.

If 739 middle-class Americans with families had died in some kind of urban environmental catastrophe in 1995, it would have been one of the biggest news stories of the decade. There would have been saturation media coverage, benefit concerts, magazine cover stories, lapel ribbons, weepy commemorative songs by Nashville recording artists, a special CNN logo, the whole apparatus of American public sympathy. But a bunch of old people dying alone is no big deal and probably didn’t happen anyway, you know how those bureaucrats exaggerate everything after all. And you’ll never be old person living in an SRO. [05:23 PM]

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Hard-Hitting Moderator: Teresa Nielsen Hayden.

Comments on Who matters, who doesn't:

Erik V. Olson ::: (view all by) ::: July 30, 2002, 05:42 PM:

More on the 1995 heat wave in Chicago is at...

Meanwhile, heat indicies of 105+ and long streches of days where the temp never drops below 80F are the norm in St. Louis. It's 96F offically now -- but with a dewpoint of only 60F, it's rather comfortable, compared to the normal St. Louis heat.

Scott Janssens ::: (view all by) ::: July 30, 2002, 07:04 PM:

I was living in Chicago, then. After the reports that many of the deaths occured in houses where the windows were shut, everything took on a surreal hue. I don't recall fear of crime ever being mentioned as a reason, though it certainly makes sense. It wasn't that Chicagoans didn't believe the numbers, just that the reports were stranger than fiction.

Erik V. Olson ::: (view all by) ::: July 30, 2002, 10:39 PM:

Academics are working on a much more useful measure of heat, called the Heat Stress Index. This takes into account not only the high temps and humidity, but the low temp (nights that don't drop below 80 make for miserable sleep, which weakens people,) duration of the heat, and (the hardest factor,) how abnormal that heat is for the area. The heat wave that tore through Chicago's Elderly in 1995 was a just another heat wave in St. Louis -- a little more vicious, but nothing new, and a similar heat wave in Boston or Seattle could have killed thousands -- thousands who just don't understand how to deal with extremely high heat/humidity for long periods.

Chicago in 1995 was following the NWS guidelines for declaring heat emergencies -- they say you don't declare a heat warning unless the Heat Index hits 120, or is over 110 for three or more days. After 1995, that changed -- and many urban areas go into emergency mode much earlier. Chicago now does so when temps are in the 90s for more than two days, or are predicted to reach 100 on any day.

Mary Kay ::: (view all by) ::: July 31, 2002, 12:41 AM:

I can in fact remember a great deal of coverage about the 1995 Chicago heat wave and the deaths resulting therefrom. I must be living in an alternate universe again. Of course, it's true there wasn't the kind of saturation coverage CNN gives really photogenic disasters, but it *was* covered well enough for me to know about it out in the wilds of California. The 1980 heat wave in Oklahoma, now, I don't think that got much media coverage, but I lived through it. Temperature was 113 one day. I think more than 30 straight day of 100+ temperatures. It was really grim.


Laurel Amberdine ::: (view all by) ::: July 31, 2002, 12:50 AM:

I agree with the general point of the article, but there is some inaccuracy. I was in Chicago too at that time and the deaths were all over the news -- front page headline stuff. Also, so many people died *that* summer because in the middle of the heat wave the electricity went out.

(And I've never heard the phrase "really real" but I only lived in the suburbs.)

Kevin J. Maroney ::: (view all by) ::: July 31, 2002, 11:00 AM:

I agree that there was a fair amount of coverage of the 1995 heat wave and the resulting deaths, at least through my news sources (which is to say, mostly NPR), but even so, I am staggered to realize the magnitude of the deaths, which makes me think that the subject dropped out of the public eye very quickly, and I suspect it is, indeed, largely forgotten outside of Chicago today.

More importantly, I remember almost no public discussion of cuts to the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program at the same time.

Hey, speaking of forgotten disasters, how many people here remember the 1992 Chicago River tunnnel flood? It did a billion dollars of damage in a matter of hours, which is about the same amount of damage as the state-wide flooding in Texas over the last few weeks.

Erik V. Olson ::: (view all by) ::: July 31, 2002, 11:20 AM:

You mean the "Great Chicago Flood?" Of course I remember. My father had predicted such a thing, noting that the tunnels in Chicago wern't particually well sealed under the river, and didn't univerally have flood doors.

They do now. I only wish Dad had been around to hear about it. He would have laughed heartily.

We joked that it should give the Chicago Flag a fifth star.

Lydia Nickerson ::: (view all by) ::: July 31, 2002, 02:54 PM:

I, too, remember extensive coverage of the heat wave in 1995, but I live in Minneapolis and get most of my news from NPR. It may be that more "normal" news conduits, like TV, didn't cover it as much. At that point, I don't think I even owned a television.

The power outage was responsible for many of the deaths, as Laurel pointed out. One news article said that a number of the deaths were due to elderly tenants caught in high-rise apartments where the elevators failed due to the power loss, so they couldn't leave, and they couldn't open windows because the building design had sealed windows to improve the efficiency of the climate control system, which also wasn't working due to power loss. Since this was low income housing, there weren't efficient back-up systems.

Neil Rest, long time Chicago native, said that before air conditioning, in weather like that most of the city would go down to the lake front and sleep on the beaches. These days, of course, fear of crime keeps people from doing it. I keep on thinking that sleeping on the beach would probably have been safer than staying in the house and broiling, just on the odds.

Gary Farber ::: (view all by) ::: July 31, 2002, 05:30 PM:

At risk of piling on, I well recall Chicago heat deaths, year after year, being the leading story on tv news, day after day, and in newspapers.

I paid careful attention to this, as someone who was, and is, poor, and who has often, as now, lived without an air conditioner.

In the past two months, by the way, it's rarely been below 90 during the day in Boulder, Colorado, and when it is, I thank whomever for the "coolness" of it being merely 88. It's a mere 99 today. No, I have no air conditioning. And the idea that I might be living in an SRO after age 60 doesn't seem unlikely to me; it's better than some alternatives.

Should heat deaths in the Us have more attention? I couldn't agree more. But it's part of a greater need, IMO, to have a greater safety net for the desperate and poor (who, me?). It would be hard to sell a "right to an air conditioner," much as it might be actually needed to survive for many people for two or three months. And god knows, I'd like that right.

I wish I had a penny for every drop of sweat this summer guy. It's like Phoenix, but at a higher altitude! (Major tan, though, just from necessary walks.)

Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: July 31, 2002, 06:44 PM:

With all due respect, Gary, you're the last person I'd go to for perspective on what did and didn't achieve a high national media profile. You're notorious for reading and remembering far more news than most people, and for being astonished when other people -- even intelligent ones! -- turn out not to be au courant with this month's developments in Slovakia.

This isn't a criticism. It is, however, true.

Simon Shoedecker ::: (view all by) ::: July 31, 2002, 08:17 PM:

I certainly remember reading alarms about the Chicago heat death at the time. I also, as Slate quoted NEJM as saying, have noted that it was forgotten afterwards. Not at the time, afterwards.

Scott Janssens ::: (view all by) ::: July 31, 2002, 11:02 PM:

I'm sure I'd could list many examples of forgotten tragedies, if it weren't for the fact that I've forgotten them.

Kevin J. Maroney ::: (view all by) ::: August 01, 2002, 08:23 PM:

The #1 forgotten disaster of the twentieth century is almost certainly the Spanish Flu Pandemic. Well, it's undergone a revival in awareness in the last few years because of a growing interest in pandemics for a variety of reasons, but in, say, 1990, I bet fewer than 1 in 10 Americans had any idea that it had happened.

Kevin J. Maroney ::: (view all by) ::: August 01, 2002, 08:25 PM:

To follow up my own post immediately: I wonder how many Americans are aware that influenza kills multiple thousands of people in the US every year? Again, it kills the elderly and infirm, so the army-division-sized casualty pile doesn't seem as important as the relatively few who die of, say, being abducted by strangers.

Laurel Amberdine ::: (view all by) ::: August 01, 2002, 11:43 PM:


I subscribed to this thread but never got any new messages. Checked via the web and sff.net had classified email from "pnh@nielsenhayden.com" as spam! Probably too many messages being sent to too many sff.net addresses. :)

I will go write to someone.

Kevin J. Maroney ::: (view all by) ::: August 14, 2002, 11:11 PM:

I think we have a winner in the "who matters" sweepstakes for this summer.

Right now, there is flooding in Central Europe. It has killed about 90 people and forced the evacuation of 200,000 people in the Czech Republic and other parts of the Danube valley. It is front-page news in the US.

In the meantime, floods in India, Nepal, and Bangladesh have killed 900 people and displaced 15 million. Strangely, this is not front-page news in the US, although there is some coverage.

It's hard to get clearer than that: 100 dead Europeans is much, much bigger news than 900 dead Indians.