The 1995 Chicago heat wave.

The history behind current events.
Sept. 2 2005 5:34 PM

When Chicago Baked

Unheeded lessons from another great urban catastrophe.

Did we learn anything from Chicago? Click on image to enlarge.
Did we learn anything from Chicago?

Sept. 11 was an epochal event in American culture, so it's no surprise that it's everyone's favorite comparison to the destruction of New Orleans. But the more instructive analogy is another great urban catastrophe in recent American history: The 1995 Chicago heat wave, when a blend of extreme weather, political mismanagement, and abandonment of vulnerable city residents resulted in the loss of water, widespread power outages, thousands of hospitalizations, and 739 deaths in a devastating week.

This summer is the heat wave's 10th anniversary. Yet the event has been largely forgotten as government agencies charged with protecting Americans from disasters have ignored the lessons it offered—and people are dying on the Gulf Coast as a result.

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Long before 1995, American public-health officials warned of the dangers of extreme summer weather. Heat waves in a typical year kill more Americans than all other extreme weather events combined (between 400 and 1,500). After cities including Philadelphia, St. Louis, and Chicago itself experienced heat disasters in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention began prodding government agencies to develop plans for preventing heat-related casualties. But few cities took this advice seriously. Chicago's Health Department shelved its heat-emergency plan in the office's back regions.

A strong emergency response might have compensated for the poor advance planning. 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.

Images of the "water war" between the teens and the city workers featured prominently in the local media, as did long sound bites from political officials who insisted that no one had foreseen the danger of heat waves and that they had done everything they could to respond. The commissioner of human services said that people died because they neglected to take care of themselves. The mayor blamed families for refusing to protect their kin. Outraged representatives of Chicago's African-American neighborhoods argued the obvious: Everyone knew which people and places were going to be most affected by the heat. The victims' vulnerability was predictable, and so was the city's neglect. Yet their complaints got little attention, and the story of what happened to their communities remains largely unknown.

Katrina is in some ways a different species of trouble. The hurricane has destroyed New Orleans and damaged smaller cities in addition to killing people. Yet the parallels are striking. Federal officials ignored several urgent pleas—from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Army Corps of Engineers, members of Congress, Gulf Coast politicians, and scores of disaster experts—for major infrastructure improvements to prevent catastrophic flooding on the Gulf Coast. Paul Krugman reports in the New York Times that FEMA rated this crisis one of the top three threats to American security. Yet the White House denied requests to shore up levees or build larger drainage systems for the lower Mississippi River.

Emergency preparations during the week before the storm were also weak. As in Chicago, top political officials—this time President Bush and his Cabinet members—refused to interrupt their vacation schedules until the death toll spiked. As in Chicago, city leaders neglected poor African-American neighborhoods where residents were certain to be vulnerable, failing to send evacuation buses there or to the hospitals and homes where the frail, elderly, and sick are clustered.

In contrast to Chicago, however, New Orleans officials have clamored for more assistance from Washington. The New York Times reported that Col. Terry Ebbert, director of Homeland Security for New Orleans, said the disaster response has been "carried on the backs of the little guys for four goddamn days. … It's criminal within the confines of the United States that within one hour of the hurricane they weren't force-feeding us. It's like FEMA has never been to a hurricane."

In part because of such open condemnation, the media coverage of Katrina has been more critical than the coverage of the Chicago heat wave. Yet little of the most valuable coverage, local radio broadcasting, is available inside New Orleans. Without TV, Internet access, newspapers, and telephones, people are depending on radios—battery-powered, in automobiles, or hand-crank—for emergency information. But as of Thursday evening, only one station, Entercom's WWL-AM 870, had its own reporters on the air. Clear Channel Communications, which owns roughly 1,200 stations nationwide (about six times more than any other company) owns six stations in New Orleans. The company has been criticized for failing to provide emergency information or expansive coverage during other local disasters in recent years. During the first days of the disaster, none of the Clear Channel stations provided their own reporting on the crisis. One, KHEV, retransmitted audio from WWL-TV. On Friday, the Web sites for Clear Channel's New Orleans stations announced that they had joined other broadcasters in setting up "United Radio for New Orleans" and removed the promos for syndicated programs and paid advertisements that had been visible on the site over the previous days.