Sun setting at Connaught Place in Delhi. Vielle Mietinen, Flickr. CC BY 2.0

Heat Waves: A 20-Year Lesson

In this guest blog, Eric Klinenberg, author of Heat Wave, discusses lessons cities must learn from the 1995 Chicago heat wave.

This August, Americans will commemorate the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, one of the worst weather disasters to hit the United States in recent history. Katrina was extensively reported and documented, and it is already an iconic American event. The storm and resultant disaster killed more than 1,800 people and displaced more than 250,000 residents of New Orleans, leaving an indelible mark on the city, state, and nation.

This week also marks the twentieth anniversary of another major disaster, one whose public significance has never been adequately recognized: the 1995 Chicago heat wave. Beginning on July 12, 1995, Chicago endured a devastating hot weather system: temperatures reached 106 degrees and the heat index soared to 126. The energy grid failed, roads buckled, bridges locked, train rails warped, school buses full of children overheated dangerously, hospitals filled up, and the city’s response systems buckled from the stress. The event claimed 739 Chicago residents, most of them concentrated in the city’s most segregated, impoverished, and run-down neighborhoods, during a single week.

These two disasters exposed a number of unsettling truths, chief among them that there’s no such thing as a natural disaster, because extreme weather tends to pinpoint poor and vulnerable people, and that states and societies have trouble acknowledging their failures and learning from the past.

A Failure to Learn

From Chicago to New Orleans, Washington D.C. and beyond, governments often treat disasters as public relations problems at the expense of urgent public health concerns. Unfortunately, this tendency endures into the aftermath of crises, preventing other cities and countries from learning from our previous experiences—an especially worrying problem with the kinds of extreme weather that are likely to recur more frequently as the planet warms.

The Chicago heat wave is a prime example. The city held no public hearings to discover what went wrong in its fatal summer, and, most cynically, the mayoral commission that reported on the heat wave placed an image of a snow flake – but no mention of the phrase “heat wave” – on the cover of its report! Less than a decade later, Western Europe experienced an unusually hot and long-lasting heat wave in 2003. Governments across Europe failed to respond appropriately, and estimates for the death toll run as high as 70,000.  When pressed to explain why they didn’t do more, leaders from several different nations insisted that nothing in history had prepared them to know that heat could be so lethal.

Imagine what might have happened had Chicago been more open about how and why it underestimated the danger of heat waves, helping other cities and nations learn from its mistakes rather than trying to make the event disappear.

It’s particularly tragic that world failed to learn from Chicago, because heat waves are relatively easy to manage with preparation. Chicago, in fact, has become much better at handling the heat, and in subsequent hot weather spells the city does far more to protect vulnerable people than it did in 1995. In a heat wave during 1999, for instance, the city worked aggressively with local media to issue warnings, raising public awareness and urging everyone to help old, frail, and isolated neighbors stay cool. The city had developed a database of people who needed special services, and it phoned elderly residents or sent police to do door-to-door check-ins. As heat waves increase in regularity and severity, these are lessons other cities can’t ignore.

Helping other cities learn from policy improvements like these is something that 100 Resilient Cities can do well.

How a Community Responds

The story of Chicago’s heat wave offers another powerful lesson – about the role of social cohesion in disaster resilience.

When disaster hits, a community’s capacity to pull together and provide support for its weakest members can make the difference between life and death. We’ve all seen images of neighbors helping neighbors during Hurricane Sandy in New York or saving lives in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina.

Neighbors working together after Katrina. FEMA

But unfortunately, images of solitary victims, discovered dead and alone because they fell through the gaping holes in our social safety nets are just as common.

Of course, residents of the most segregated, violent, and disadvantaged neighborhoods will be most vulnerable to extreme weather like heat waves. This was largely the case in Chicago in 1995, but during my research I discovered that three of the ten neighborhoods with the lowest death rates were predominantly poor, African-American communities, places that, demographically speaking, should have been far deadlier than they were.

Why did people in some of Chicago’s vulnerable neighborhoods fare so much better than people in others? In Heat Wave, I show that social infrastructure – the sidewalks, community centers, parks, and commercial establishments that shape people’s capacity to connect with each other – played a crucial role in determining who lived and died during the heat wave. Places with a social infrastructure that encouraged local social life and contact between neighbors were far less likely to have multiple heat deaths, whereas places whose broken down streets, sidewalks, and public spaces actively discouraged older people from venturing outdoors were far more likely see death rates soar.

Whether it’s the great Chicago heat wave, Hurricane Katrina, or a calamity that happened closer to your home, disasters can be important resources for learning about our vulnerability and what we can do to protect each other.

This summer we should commemorate the major recent American disasters by taking a closer look at both the mistakes we made and the surprising successes that point towards resilience. Cities throughout the world can learn from what happened here. In fact they need to, because with climate change, knowing how to build more resilience communities has become urgent.


Follow Eric Klinenberg on Twitter: @ericklinenberg