Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Putting the Heat into Perspective

Granted, the heat here in L.A. has been brutal the past few weeks. 119 degrees in Woodland Hills?! Unbelievable.

But this summer still doesn't even come close to what I experienced in 1995, when I was living in Chicago. In an apartment without air conditioning. I'll never forget that summer's heat wave: You'd wake up in the morning to humidity so stifling, that you'd literally have to crawl to the bathroom to take a shower. By the time I took my short walk to the El train, I'd be soaked in sweat. At night, we'd jump into Lake Michigan to beat the heat. It was horrible.

But what I still remember most from that summer: Picking up the newspaper every morning and reading about more and more poor, mostly elderly residents dying from the heat. There's still no exact count on how many people died that summer -- the estimates range from 500 to over 700 people within a short span. It was a true tragedy, although mostly forgotten outside of Chicago 11 years later.

Last year, Slate compared the Hurricane Katrina disaster with Chicago's 1995 deadly heat wave -- and noted the inadequate government response in both cases:

As with Katrina, meteorologists identified the treacherous weather system at least a week before it hit Chicago and advised the city to prepare for the worst. Instead, Mayor Richard M. Daley and many of his Cabinet members set off on summer vacations, returning to Chicago only after dead bodies began piling up at the morgue. In the absence of its leaders, the city failed to pull its forgotten heat-emergency plan from the shelf. Local emergency managers refused to call in additional resources to help with the unfolding health crisis, even though paramedics and ambulances were readily available.

Affluent and middle-class Chicagoans had little trouble getting out of harm's way. They either turned on their air conditioners or fled for cooler destinations. Thousands of poor, old, isolated, and sick people, especially those concentrated in the city's segregated African-American ghettos, on the other hand, were effectively trapped in lethal conditions. Neither federal nor local agencies did much to assist them. Instead, city patrols cracked down on young people who opened fire hydrants.

Luckily, we haven't experienced a similar disaster here in L.A., although the L.A. Times notes that the death toll throughout the state from this record heat wave has risen to more than 50, mostly in the state's Central Valley:

Among the hardest hit was Fresno County, where hospitals are filled to capacity and the morgue is out of room for the first time in its history.

"We've never had this many before," said Fresno County Coroner Loralee Cervantes, who said she suspects that heat played a role in killing a third of those whose bodies lie in the morgue's refrigeration unit.

A survey of coroners around the state found an estimated 53 to 57 deaths under investigation as heat-related by late Tuesday. It will take up to four weeks to conduct the necessary autopsies to determine whether heat was the specific cause of death in most of the cases.

More on Chicago's 1995 heat wave here.

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