Lessons for the Puget Sound from Chicago’s deadly Heat Wave

By Ashley Kelmore –

PH Good ReadsOur 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.

How does this relate to King County in 2015?

Heat WaveWe usually don’t get too many scorching days each year, but as the thermometer starts to creep back up, there are things we should do to prevent unnecessary illness and death from heat. We can get to know–and check in on–our community members. If you haven’t seen an elderly neighbor in a couple of days, see how they are doing. If you know that your own house or apartment isn’t going to stay cool, seek out places that will, like a shopping mall or library.

Beyond the individual responsibilities, the County and local city governments take heat very seriously. At Public Health, we track heat illness cases in the emergency rooms, send informational heat alerts to community leaders and human service providers who can better reach vulnerable populations, communicate safety information via news media and social media, and take other actions as needed to keep the public safe and healthy.

I know we’re all thinking about the ‘big one’ thanks to the latest New Yorker, but there are other hazards that can sneak up on us. If you’re interested in learning about one of the less flashy (but more common) emergencies, consider checking out Heat Wave by Dr. Eric Klinenberg.

Ashley Kelmore is a Response Planning Manager in the Preparedness Section at Public Health – Seattle & King County.