It’s 32°C today. That’s 90° in American, or, in other words, brutally hot. Now, I still prefer this to our long, torturous winters, but this is cause for us Canuckistanis to engage in our favourite hobby: complaining about the weather.
Yep, it’s bad. Not as bad as it was for one July week in Chicago in 1995, though. Starting on July 15, unusual atmospheric conditions there sparked a massive heatwave that killed 365 people.
From an article in the New Yorker:
As the air mass settled on the city, cars began to overheat and stall in the streets. Roads buckled. Hundreds of children developed heat exhaustion when school buses were stuck in traffic. [...] A series of rolling blackouts left thousands without power. As the heat took its toll, the city ran out of ambulances. More than twenty hospitals, mostly on Chicago’s poorer South Side, shut their doors to new admissions. Callers to 911 were put on hold, and as the police and paramedics raced from one home to another it became clear that the heat was killing people in unprecedented numbers. [...] The morgue ran out of bays in which to put the bodies. Office space was cleared. It wasn’t enough. The owner of a local meatpacking firm offered the city his refrigerated trucks to help store the bodies. The first set wasn’t enough. He sent another. It wasn’t enough. In the end, there were nine forty-eight-foot meatpacking trailers in the morgue’s parking lot.
It was certainly awful, and just like that other recent natural disaster that struck New Orleans, most of the victims were poor. Most were elderly. Of course, back in those days, when a natural disaster killed large numbers of people, the folks in charge did bother looking into why the death toll was so severe. And this is where the interesting bit happens.
In Dark Age Ahead, Jane Jacobs wrote about the large research team assembled by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. She writes:
The researchers carefully paired each dead individual with an otherwise similar survivor of the heat wave. The matching survivor was from a randomly chosen location. This swift and Herculean effort by eighty researchers, their supervisors, and the high-powered designers of the study was worthless, because it turned up only what everybody already knew, including the meteorologists who had issued the early warnings. Those who died had run out of water, had no air-conditioning, did not leave their rooms to find cool refuge, and were not successfully checked up on. Indeed, the researchers’ findings were worse than useless. Survivors differed in having successfully kept cool. The findings were misleading because they encouraged blaming the victims; after all, they hadn’t looked after themselves.
Anyway, both Jacobs and the article I linked to go on to praise the work of New York University sociologist Eric Klinenberg, author of Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago. Klinenberg has the distinction of being the bright guy who asked the right questions about who died, and why. Instead of looking at individual choices, Klinenberg looked at communities—particularly at North Lawndale and South Lawndale, two poor communities with large populations of poor, elderly people. The death tolls for the two communities, however, were wildly different—40 deaths per 100,000 people in North Lawndale; less than 4 per 100,000 people in South Lawndale.
The reasons were, when you think rationally about it, quite obvious and very structural. North Lawndale was a bustling, close-knit community—people knew their neighbours, knew air-conditioned shops that were in walking distance, felt comfortable opening their doors to strangers. South Lawndale was sprawling and underpopulated. Poor old people didn’t have anywhere to walk to, and died shut up in their apartments. They weren’t killed by heat so much as they were by poor urban planning.
Cities would do well to remember this tragic piece of history when they do what our city is doing now. There’s a relentless wave of gentrification at the moment, with low income areas being leveled to make way for condos. Grocery stores give way to high-priced restaurants. Affordable housing, when it does get built, gets built in the suburbs, where there is little public transit and no social infrastructure. The poor get swept out of sight, communities are destroyed, and we have a disaster in the making.
(Thanks to Zingerella for loaning me Dark Age Ahead.)