By Ashley Kelmore
Public Health – Seattle & King County
Our hotter-than-usual summer in the Pacific Northwest likely won’t reach the extremes of the 1995 Chicago summer heat wave, which killed 733 people.
But some of the issues from that catastrophe are relevant to us here and now, and Dr. Eric Klinenberg describes them in his fascinating book Heat Wave.
Klinenberg proposes that the temperature and humidity are not solely to blame for illness and death from heat.
Instead, it is the heat combined with the systems society has set up (or not set up) that failed people in a complicated way.
Similar neighborhoods, deadly differences
Klinenberg focuses on comparing two neighborhoods that are similar in basic demographics, and even have the same microclimate, but had VERY different death rates.
To explain this disparity, he looks at how the different neighborhoods function. Are people too scared to leave their buildings to seek cooler locations (such as libraries or movie theaters)?
Are they too worried about their finances to turn on the life-saving window AC unit to cool themselves down?
Are they isolated from support systems that could have intervened to make sure they were doing okay? In many cases, the answers are “yes,” “yes,” and “yes.”
Chicago’s government and how they responded (or failed to respond) was also a factor, according to Klinenberg.
Front-line police officers were tasked with community policing but didn’t check in on the community.
Fire chiefs ignored warnings from their staff that they should have more ambulances available.
And sadly, the health commissioner didn’t really ‘get’ that something was amiss. Klinenberg also explores the role the media played in not treating the story with the gravity it deserved until late into the heat wave. Continue reading