When you think about disasters that caused a whole bunch of deaths in one swoop in the US in the last 25 or 30 years (outside of a war), you probably think about the September 11 attacks, which killed 2,977 in the US. If I were to ask you what the next biggest disaster in terms of deaths, you’d probably also get it right: Hurricane Katrina and its 1,833 deaths. But do you know what caused the third greatest number of deaths in the past 25 years?
Surprisingly (to me, at least) it was the 1995 Chicago heat wave, which took 733 lives over the course of about a week.
It’s been hotter than usually in the Pacific Northwest, where I live. We had multiple days in a row above 90, which may not sound bad to those of you used to sweltering summers, but in general folks out here don’t have air conditioning (and if you do have it but you don’t have the money for an electric bill of gargantuan proportions, you might just leave it off). My apartment in the evenings was often still in the mid-upper 80s, and we don’t even get any direct sunlight (thank goodness for north-facing windows). I also work in public health emergency preparedness, so I have an extra special interest in things that cause a whole lot of people to get sick and die at once.
Author Dr. Klinenberg is originally from Chicago, and earned his PhD in Sociology at UC Berkely in 2000. Heat Wave is his dissertation, exploring not just the health causes of those 700+ deaths, but the social causes. His thesis is that the hot days didn’t kill these people alone; the systems society has set up (or not set up) instead failed many of these people in a complicated way that would be dangerous to ignore if we seek to avoid it in the future.
Much of his work focuses on comparing two neighborhoods that are very similar in some of the basic demographics, and even have the same microclimate, but had VERY different death rates. In one neighborhood (95% black), 40 out of 100,000 residents died in the heat wave; in the neighborhood next door (86% Latino), only 4 out of 100,000 residents died. That is a huge difference, and one that we should try to explain.
Beyond this, he looks at the role of city government and how they responded (or failed to respond), from the front-line police officers who were tasked with community policing but didn’t check in on the community, through the fire chiefs who ignored warnings from their staff that they should have more ambulances available, to the health commissioner who didn’t really ‘get’ that something was amiss. Dr. Klinenberg also explores the role the media played in not treated the story with the gravity it deserved until late into the heat wave.
Even if you aren’t interested in public health preparedness, or aren’t into sociological profiles, I think you might find this book to be quite fascinating. I’m impressed with the readability of what is essentially someone’s dissertation, and I think I can learn a lot that will be helpful to me in professional life.
This book got me back on track for my cannonball read, too, so I’m quite grateful for that. I haven’t finished a book in nearly three weeks. Between going to Canada for five World Cup matches (including the final – woo!), my computer dying, and learning that my back-up system failed, plus the aforementioned ridiculous heat wave we had, I’ve mostly wanted to just sit on my ass and play games on my phone. But no more! I’m back to reading and it feels fantastic.