Low-income families suffer most from Chicago's latest heatwave
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Low-income families suffer most from Chicago’s latest heatwave

Low-income families suffer most from Chicago’s latest heatwave

As an intense heatwave sweeps across the United States this weekend, Chicagoans are scrambling to prepare. With air conditioning cranked up and ice-bags leaving the grocery store in droves, locals are sparing no expense. But in a city infamous for economic inequality, is access to heat relief a limited commodity? 

Another Heat Wave Hits Chicago

If heat relief was ever needed, now is the time. The National Weather Service has issued an Excessive Heat Warning, which is still ongoing, predicting a high of 95 °F. Combined with the humidity, Chicagoans expect a real-feel heat of about 110 °F. To make matters even worse, nighttime temperatures probably won’t drop below 75 degrees, implying little relief from daytime highs. And according to weather expert Marshall Shepherd, these high minimum temperatures mean that “the body has to work harder to cool itself.” Consequently, long periods of these high temperatures may be what’s behind most heat-related fatalities.

Some might not think much of the heatwaves, as they tuck themselves away in their homes, fully-equipped with a handy air conditioning system. However, the poor aren’t as lucky, as the heatwaves allow them no place to tuck away.

Though the damage of Chicago’s 2019 heatwave is still up in the air, a quick look at empirical data doesn’t make the situation appear promising. To assess the damage disproportionately faced by the city’s low-income communities, it’s helpful to look back on Chicago’s infamous 1995 heatwave, which killed hundreds in its wake.    

Minorities Disproportionately Impacted in Chicago’s 1995 Heatwave

Yesterday marked the 24th anniversary of Chicago’s 1995 heatwave. Over the course of three days, extreme heat left Chicago inanimate, with residents forced inside and huddled around the AC units. But across many poorer neighborhoods of Chicago, access to air-conditioning was limited. And fears of criminal activity outside left many, particularly elderly citizens, trapped indoors without cool air or access to the city’s public cooling centers. 

The effects were profound. An estimated 739 died during this heatwave, most at home — alone.

Of these deaths, most were elderly, black, and poor. The number was so high that local mortuaries struggled to find enough space to accommodate the influx.  With no other choice, they were sent to await autopsy in cooled food trucks. 

The Government Failed to Act Effectively In Response to the 1995 Heatwave

This crisis crescendoed due to systemic segregation and political stalling. Most of the heat deaths occurred on the South and West sides in low-income neighborhoods such as Englewood, Homewood, and Roseland. There, higher population densities compounded the heat.

The urban island effect, which states that urban areas with large amounts of cement and a high density of buildings absorb far more heat, only worsened the danger. This high population density stems from the city’s history of segregation. Due to excessive redlining since the very beginning, black Chicagoans have been forced into small, defined districts.   

Mayor Richard Daley's initiative to combat the heatwave fell short, endangering hundreds.
Mayor Richard Daley’s initiative to combat the heatwave fell short, endangering hundreds.

The municipal government in 1995 hardly helped to mitigate the public health threat. Mayor Richard Daley’s initiative to combat the heatwave fell short, endangering hundreds. After seeing an initial estimate of the deaths, he doubted the numbers. Despite his efforts of “opening air-conditioned centers, delivering ice to shut-ins, setting up telephone banks to check on the elderly and broadcasting warnings,” the heat emergency prevailed, according to a 1995 New York Times report.

His actions came far too late.

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Remembering the missteps of this deadly heatwave could help today’s Chicago readjust its action plan and limit future heat deaths. But what exactly does that future look like? 

Climate Change Will Only Exacerbate Heatwaves 

For Chicago, a memory of tragedy marks the summer of 1995. But with climate change on the rise, heatwaves like it will only become increasingly common. Eventually, the days of heat will turn into weeks. With more than half of the world population living in cities, Chicago is not alone as it prepares for the implications of greater heat. 

But Chicago is unique in its high levels of racial segregation. Only 9 miles apart, the life expectancy drops from 90 to 60 between two Chicago neighborhoods. And the urban island effect means heat will build up even more exponentially in low-income neighborhoods with less greenery and more cement.

Access to air-conditioning is still limited, with some led to theft in order to acquire cool air. The factors that made the 1995 heatwave terrible for low-income communities are still around. In fact, they may become more threatening as global temperatures continue to rise. 

If one thing is for sure, the time is now to focus on a solution to the threat of heat for low-income, urban communities. The temperatures may go up, but the death toll doesn’t have to. 

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