This month (July 2015) marks the twentieth anniversary of the week-long 1995 Chicago heat wave that killed over 700 people. Unlike other types of natural disasters, like hurricanes, earthquakes, and blizzards, heat waves are silent killers--their destruction is wreaked in private homes rather than in public. Paradoxically, despite the fact that heat waves are often far more deadly than these others kinds of natural disasters, the threats they pose receive very little media and popular attention.
The news we do hear about heat waves is that they are most risky to the very young and very old. Helpfully, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention points out that those who live alone, do not leave home on a daily basis, lack access to transportation, are ill or bedridden, socially isolated, and lack air conditioning are most at risk of perishing during a heat wave.
But following Chicago's deadly heat wave in 1995, sociologist Eric Klinenberg found that there were other important and overlooked factors that strongly influenced who survived and who died during this crisis. In his 2002 book Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago, Klinenberg shows that physical and social isolation of the mostly elderly population who died was a huge contributing factor, but so too was the economic and political neglect of the city's poor neighborhoods where most of the deaths occurred.
An urban sociologist, Klinenberg spent a few years conducting field work and interviews in Chicago following the heat wave, and conducted archival research to investigate why so many deaths occurred, who died, and what factors contributed to their deaths. He found a significant racial disparity in the deaths that was linked to the social geography of the city. Elderly Black residents were 1.5 time more likely to die than elderly whites, and though they make up 25 percent of the city's populations, Latinos represented just 2 percent of the total deaths attributed to the heat wave.
Responding to this racial disparity in the aftermath of the crisis, city officials and many media outlets speculated (based on racial stereotypes) that this happened because Latinos have large and tight-knit families that served to protect their elderly. But Klinenberg was able to disprove this as a significant difference between Blacks and Latinos using demographic and survey data, and found instead that it was the social and economic health of neighborhoods that shaped that outcome.
Klinenberg illustrates this clearly with a comparison between two demographically very similar areas, North Lawndale and South Lawndale, that also have a few important differences. North is primarily Black and neglected by city investment and services. It has many vacant lots and buildings, very few businesses, a lot of violent crime, and very little street life. South Lawndale is primarily Latino, and though it has similar levels of poor and impoverished as does North, it has a thriving local business economy and a vibrant street life.
Klinenberg found through conducting research in these neighborhoods that it was the character of their everyday life that shaped these disparate outcomes in levels of mortality. In North Lawndale, elderly Black residents are too afraid to leave their homes to seek help in dealing with the heat, and have virtually no options of anywhere else to go in their neighborhood if they did leave. However in South Lawndale elderly residents are comfortable leaving their homes due to the character of the neighborhood, so during the heat wave they were able to leave their hot apartments and seek refuge in air conditioned businesses and senior centers.
Ultimately, Klinenberg concludes that while the heat wave was a natural weather phenomenon, the exceptional death toll was a social phenomenon resulting from the political and economic management of urban areas. In a 2002 interview, Klinenberg remarked,
The death toll was the result of distinct dangers in Chicago's social environment: an increased population of isolated seniors who live and die alone; the culture of fear that makes city dwellers reluctant to trust their neighbors or, sometimes, even leave their houses; the abandonment of neighborhoods by businesses, service providers, and most residents, leaving only the most precarious behind; and the isolation and insecurity of single room occupancy dwellings and other last-ditch low-income housing.
What the heat wave revealed were "the hazardous social conditions that are always present but difficult to perceive."
So who is most at risk of dying in a heat wave this summer? Those who are elderly and socially isolated, yes, but especially those who live in the neglected and forgotten neighborhoods that suffer the brunt of unjust economic inequality and the consequences of systemic racism.