Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago

Eric Klinenberg. Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002.

Heat Wave examines the 1995 weather disaster that killed more than 700 people from July 12 to July 16, most of them poor and elderly. Klinenberg identifies the social, environmental, and political components of this tragedy, and I compare it with the heat wave that claimed the lives of 15,000 people in France in the summer of 2003.

Klinenberg performs a compelling and disturbing dissection of the social, economic, cultural and political conditions and policies that led to the deaths of over 700 people in Chicago during a powerful heat wave in 1995. He examines the age, gender, and racial characteristics of "the decedents" to determine why they were particularly vulnerable to the extreme weather conditions, the physical environments in which they lived and died, and the assumptions, failures, and symbolic reproductions of the tragedy by government officials, city agencies and the local media. Klinenberg contends that "this study establishes that the heat wave deaths represent . . . 'biological reflections of social fault lines' for which we, and not nature, are responsible" (p. 11). Thus, his work is quite reminiscent of Mike Davis’s argument in Late Victorian Holocausts: El Niño Famines and the Making of the Third World (2000) that the extensive loss of life during the nineteenth century drought-famines caused by El Niño-Southern Oscillation events always had a human component (although Klinenberg is not nearly so openly condemnatory of predatory capitalism as Davis).

Klinenberg establishes that 73% of the decedents were over the age of 65 and men were more than twice as likely to die as women, because elderly men often have more limited social networks and thus less access to aid and support. Black Americans "had the highest proportional death rates" (p. 18), a consequence of their marginalization and residence in impoverished neighborhoods with few safe commercial or public buildings; crumbling, inadequate streets, sidewalks, and lighting; and higher rates of crime and violence, leading the older citizens to feel their safety could only be assured by staying within their homes as much as possible, behind locked doors and closed windows. The elderly poor could not afford air conditioning because of their limited incomes and government cuts in aid, and they sometimes even lacked water. And because the "reinvented city" expected sharp, active "consumers" to inform themselves about and take advantage of its services, it was the most marginalized and vulnerable citizens who had the least access to the help and support they desperately needed.

There was a certain irony in that Klinenberg’s book was published just a year before the heat wave that killed 15,000 people in France in August, 2003, especially when he writes that he was in Europe during the summer of 1995 and although it was "uncomfortably hot," he didn’t hear about any deaths from the heat there. So he thought this illustrated a "contrast" between Europe and the U.S. (p. 12), when in fact, a quick Google search turns up a number of stories and articles about the French heat wave that reveal the striking similarities between these weather-related tragedies. As Will Parry wrote in The Guardian in November, 2003: "Hospitals and morgues were overwhelmed. Most of the victims were elderly. Most lived in isolation from family and community. Most were poor."

As in Chicago, government and social service agencies tried to deflect the blame by pointing fingers at other parties. The Fire Department claimed that police and paramedics did not accurately report conditions in the field; the paramedics retorted that their reports were ignored or discounted.The medical system buckled under the strain during both heat wave disasters. In Chicago at the height of the crisis, there was a shortage of ambulances and nearly half of the city’s hospitals went on "bypass" status, turning away critically-ill victims. Many critics charged that the French medical system broke down because a large number of doctors and support personnel were on their annual summer holiday during the crisis; however, at least one news article featured quotes from doctors and staff who denounced such accusations as overblown and unfounded. And just as some Chicago officials and commentators attempted to shift the blame to the victims or their families, so did some French health professional and government officials.

Chicago politicians and media pundits bemoaned the breakdown of family ties and neighborliness; while in France, the elderly victims were supposedly "abandoned" by their families who were on holiday during the heat wave—but I wonder how many of the French victims were in fact as totally isolated and bereft of family and social support as Chicago’s elderly decedents? At least one French doctor claimed that the elderly victims had "rejected" family and friends, "resisted" going on vacation with their families, or "avoided contact" with neighbors and relatives. In Chicago, Human Services Commissioner Daniel Alvarez callously stated that "We’re talking about people who die because they neglect themselves" (p. 172).

These parallels powerfully support and strengthen Klinenberg’s research and arguments. As one blogger pointed out, it would be especially interesting to know the ethnic and racial status of the French victims. How did immigrants fare—were they especially isolated, or was their experience similar to that of the residents of the vibrant Latino community of Chicago's Little Village? One of the French victims was a Moroccan woman living in a small room known as chambres de bonnes ("maids’ quarters") on the top floor of apartment buildings, covered by zinc tiles, in circumstances nearly identical to those of Chicagoans living in stifling single rooms in hotel residences. What about gender—did more older men than women die, as in Chicago? What was the spatial distribution of the deaths—in Paris, for example, did the approximately 1,500 fatalities occur in poorer, more dangerous neighborhoods? Although France is generally thought to provide a higher level of social protection than the US,* clearly both of these modern western nations share social, economic, and political structural characteristics that render the elderly poor particularly vulnerable to these catastrophes.

Naturally, Klinenberg was interviewed by U.S. media during the French crisis, and he pointed out that unlike Chicago, where no public officials were held accountable, at least the French minister of health was forced to step down in the wake of the tragedy. Another difference (although not one noted by Klinenberg) is that the 47 unclaimed bodies in Chicago were buried in a mass grave; in Paris, the 57 unclaimed bodies were buried at the same time, but in individual graves.

It is also ironic that Davis wrote a typically-polemical piece comparing the Chicago and French heat wave calamities called "Our Summer Vacation: 20,000 Dead" in September, 2003, but a look at the index to his book, Ecology of Fear: Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster (1998), turns up no entry for "heat wave," nor does his litany of Los Angeles’s natural disasters such as earthquakes, fires, tornadoes, floods, and drought appear to include the heat wave of 1955 which killed nearly a thousand people. And yet, as Klinenberg notes, annual heat-related deaths exceed those for "all other extreme meteorological events combined" (emphasis his, p. 17).

*Don Jaime suggested that I should revise my previous statement, "Although France is supposedly a socialist country" because "'democratic market economy' is probably the best term. It's been several years since there was even a socialist government." Upon reflection, I agree, and thank you for the correction. (Revised August 9, 2007).