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How 700 Chicagoans died in a heat wave
Murder by public policy

Review by Lance Selfa | September 20, 2002 | Page 9

BOOKS: Eric Klinenberg, Heat Wave. University of Chicago Press, 2002, 320 pages, $27.50.

THE GERMAN Marxist playwright Berthold Brecht once wrote that famines don't just happen; they are organized by the grain trade. A similar observation could be made about the July 1995 heat wave that claimed the lives of more than 700 Chicagoans in one week.

As Eric Klinenberg's Heat Wave shows, the people who succumbed as the heat index climbed over 120 degrees Fahrenheit weren't just victims of the elements. They were the human casualties of a political and social system that calculated their lives weren't worth protecting.

Most of them died alone and were buried in mass graves in a suburban potters' field. City flacks and a press keying on "beating the heat" human-interest stories promoted the fiction that the heat wave hit everyone equally. But Klinenberg shows the opposite was the case. The heat wave proved especially deadly to elderly shut-ins, particularly older, poor African American men.

Klinenberg's "social autopsy" of the disaster reveals the social, economic and political dynamics that left the city's poor vulnerable to the heat. Decades of neglect of public housing and the loss of single-room occupancy hotels to city-encouraged gentrification forced the elderly poor into the city's worst housing.

Cuts in the federal low-income energy assistance program--Congress, led by arch-conservative Newt Gingrich, voted to eliminate the program only a few days after the heat wave made national news--forced many elderly poor to choose between food and air conditioning.

Klinenberg saves his sharpest criticism for Chicago officials, from Mayor Richard M. Daley on down. City officials refused to admit the catastrophe until news cameras showed a backup of police cars and ambulances--and borrowed refrigerated trucks--at the Cook County morgue.

Forced to face the crisis, the city launched a public relations campaign to deflect the blame. Nothing could be allowed to tarnish the image of the self-proclaimed "city that works" as it planned to host the 1996 Democratic Party convention. The blame shifting hit its lowest point when city human services commissioner Daniel Alvarez sniffed, "We're talking about people who die because they neglect themselves."

For almost two weeks, Daley traded charges with medical officials, claiming they exaggerated the heat deaths. But city officials knew the truth. The mayor's office instructed the health commissioner that "no one was to see those numbers. We weren't allowed to say anything," a whistleblower tells Klinenberg.

Heat Wave shows the disaster wasn't simply the result of bungling. In fact, city officials made conscious decisions that abetted the crisis. As police and paramedics began picking up bodies, the public health system froze up.

Robert Scates, a deputy chief paramedic, demanded that his superiors enact their existing emergency plan to mobilize equipment and personnel from around the region. His superiors refused. Scates ran up against the "reinvented" city government's philosophy of "saving money regardless of the expense to people's lives."

Resigning his post, he denounced the city for committing "murder by public policy." Klinenberg documents the factors that contributed to Scates' frustration: privatization of city services, slashes in staffing in health and human services to pay for more cops and a view of city residents as "customers" in a "market" of city services.

Heat Wave demonstrates the human costs of all of these "New Democrat" policies. With global warming increasing the likelihood of deadly heat waves and with the growing population of elderly people, many cities will face the crisis that hit Chicago in 1995.

With the release of Heat Wave, they can't say they haven't been warned.

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