3 Women Die in Early Heat Wave in Chicago

CHICAGO — Temperatures barely climbed into the 90s and only for a couple of days. Three bodies were discovered inside Chicago’s senior housing unit this month. This was after the death of more than 700 people in the same heat wave nearly 30 years ago.

Now, the city — and the country — is facing the reality that because of climate change, deadly heat waves can strike just about anywhere, don’t only fall in the height of summer and need not last long.

“Hotter and more dangerous heat waves are coming earlier, in May … and the other thing is we are getting older and more people are living alone,” said Eric Klinenberg, a New York University sociologist, who wrote “Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago.” about the 1995 heat wave. “It’s a formula for disaster.”

The Cook County Medical Examiner’s office has yet to determine the causes of death for the three women whose bodies were found in the James Sneider Apartments on May 14. But the victims’ families have already filed or plan to file wrongful death lawsuits against the companies that own and manage the buildings.

According to the City Council member representing the neighborhood in which the building is situated, she was subjected to oppressive temperatures when she visited the area. One unit had heat sensors that reached 102 degrees.

“These are senior residents, residents with health conditions (and) they should not be in these conditions,” Alderman Maria Hadden said in a Facebook video shot outside the apartments.

Experts say that the issue is partly due to communities not being taught how dangerous heat can be. Chicago saw refrigerated trucks filled with bodies from the heat wave of 1995 to illustrate that Chicago wasn’t prepared for such a terrible disaster. This was more than double the number of deaths caused by the Great Chicago Fire in 1871.

The realization led city workers to create a system that calls the frail and elderly, then turns city buildings into cooling centers for 24-hours when temperatures are too high.

What happened this month is a reminder that the safeguards in place to make sure people don’t freeze to death because they have not paid their heating bills often do not exist to prevent people from overheating in their homes.

“We have nothing for air conditioning,” Hadden said.

One expert isn’t surprised.

“We recognize people need heating in cold weather and set up programs, financial assistance, to enable that but we don’t do that for cooling,” said Gregory Wellenius, a Boston University professor of environmental health who has studied heat-related deaths. “But subsidies for cooling are really controversial (because) for many people cooling is seen as a luxury item.”

In Chicago, Hadden said the building’s management company believed it was not allowed to turn off the heat and turn on the air conditioning until June 1, because of the city’s heat ordinance. While Hadden stated that such an obligation is not in the ordinance’s terms, she believes the explanation should signal to the city that they need to amend the ordinance to ensure heat protection for vulnerable individuals.

According to Wellenius, statistics indicate that although over 80% have air conditioners in Phoenix and Dallas, this percentage drops in New York and Boston.

The percentage in the Pacific Northwest is lower. This was evident in Oregon, Washington, and western Canada during the June heat wave that saw temperatures soar to 118 F, resulting in 600 deaths.

The good news is that there are some encouraging signs.

“More people have air conditioning and we are more aware of the health risks of heat waves,” Klinenberg said.

Still, there is evidence that people don’t appreciate or even know just how dangerous the heat can be.

In a study published in 2020, Wellenius and other researchers estimated that nationwide about 5,600 deaths a year could be attributed to high heat — eight times more than the 700 heat-related deaths that are study found were officially reported each year.

Wellenius said the reasons for what he called a “gross miscalculation” begin with the fact that official statistics are simply the result of counting death certificates that list heat as the cause of death.

In the county that includes Chicago, for example, the medical examiner’s office reported two heat-related deaths last year, and seven the year before.

It is not clear how many American deaths are due to heat today. Wellenius’ study, published in 2020, is the result of research from 1997 to 2006. Klinenberg stated that the problem has been made more difficult by the pandemic.

“It’s hard to distinguish excess heat deaths from COVID deaths,” he said.

Hadden recognizes that heat can strike earlier or later than usual in the year.

“We have to plan for this,” she said.

Klinenberg asks cities if they will continue to follow-up on this talk.

“Heat never feels like the most important thing in cities and by the time it feels like the most important thing it is too late to do anything about it,” he said.

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