In July of 1995, Chicago experienced a deadly five-day heatwave. At least 500 people died that week when the heat index topped out at a record 118 degrees. Though with heat-related deaths difficult to quantify, and many of the elderly victims dying alone at home, that estimate is probably conservative; there were 739 excess deaths in the city during the heatwave.
On Thursday, Chicago’s heat index hit 120 degrees, which is likely an all-time record (heat indexes were only recorded hourly before 1996 but are now measured more frequently, so it’s possible that a higher high was missed in the past).
While there’s no doubt that more heatwaves with even higher temperatures will bake Chicago and other cities in the coming years thanks to climate change, the reasons why so many people died in 1995 were largely social and governmental.
So the sweltering new record begs the question: Has Chicago done enough to correct those problems?
A combination of bad forecasting, bad government response, and long-term neglect of the city’s Black neighborhoods were all factors in making the 1995 heatwave so deadly. The high temps were only expected to last for a few days, and the city did little to prepare for the high temperatures or alert residents about the risks.
The city only put out an emergency heat warning on the last day of the heatwave, so cooling centers and other city resources that could have provided relief were not utilized during much of that week.
Then-Mayor Richard M. Daley was also dismissive of the early reports of hundreds of deaths, saying at one point, “Everyday people die of natural causes. You cannot claim that everybody who has died in the last eight or nine days dies of heat. Then everybody in the summer that dies will die of heat.”
But the deaths were very real, and they disproportionately affected the city’s Black neighborhoods.
“Most of the African American neighborhoods with high heat wave death rates had been abandoned — by employers, stores, and residents — in recent decades,” said Eric Klinenberg, author of “Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago,” in a 2002 interview with the University of Chicago Press. “The social ecology of abandonment, dispersion, and decay makes systems of social support exceedingly difficult to sustain.”
It’s thought that many deaths occurred in homes that didn’t have air conditioning, or had A/C, but it wasn’t running due to concerns about the costs. With fear of crime running high in the 1990s, some people slept with their windows closed despite the heat, sometimes with deadly consequences. During a heatwave in the 1930s, many Chicagoans slept in parks or on the beach by Lake Michigan, but there was no such community-wide change in behavior in response to the 1995 heatwave.
Today, Latinx Chicagoans occupy the hottest parts of the city, according to an extensive study of heat in the city conducted earlier this year by the Chicago Tribune and climate scientists at Boston University, while white people tend to live in the coolest neighborhoods.
The researchers also found that Black Chicagoans tend to live in neighborhoods with average surface temperatures. This marks a change from the ‘90s, when Black residents were disproportionately affected by the heatwave, and mortality was surprisingly low in Latinx communities.
But the city has changed demographically: The Latinx population increased by over 5% between 2010 and 2020, according to the U.S. Census, while the city lost 85,000 Black residents during the same time period. As of 2020, there are, for the first time ever, more Latinx Chicagoans than Black residents.
More homes have A/C in Chicago today too, and a new law passed in 2022 will require new construction and certain existing residential buildings to cool common areas when the temperature is above 80 degrees — but a proposal to require landlords to provide A/C in all rental units, as they are required to provide heating in the winter, failed.
More robust cooling infrastructure will certainly help in future heatwaves (though running all those air conditioners only generates more carbon emissions), especially if there are more cool spaces that individuals don’t have to pay for, like city cooling centers and apartment-building common areas. But a cooled lobby won’t solve the social issues that kept elderly Chicagoans locked inside their hot apartments in 1995, alone and afraid, where far, far too many died.
“Areas where the residential areas are largely poor and, of course, majority-minority communities … those neighborhoods that have the highest exposure to heat also have the highest vulnerability, the least access to cooling centers, the least social affluence,” Trent Ford, Illinois state climatologist, told the Tribune when the paper published its heat investigation.
Until that changes — which will likely require addressing the many underlying issues of systemic racism that have put such neighborhoods at a disadvantage over the decades and centuries — future heatwaves will also disproportionately harm such neighborhoods.