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Heat Wave

Death comes to the city of extremes

It’s hot. It’s very hot. We all have our little problems but let’s not blow it out of proportion…. We go to extremes in Chicago. And that’s why people like Chicago. We go to extremes.

—Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley, July 17, 1995

Thursday, July 13, 1995 was the hottest day in Chicago’s history, with the temperature rising to 106 degrees and the heat index (a measure of heat and humidity) topping 120. On July 14 the temperature broke 100 again, and persistent tropical heat kept Chicago sweltering through the weekend. But the climate is only one of the reasons that Joseph Lazcko, a sixty-eight-year-old man of Hungarian descent, died alone in his Northwest Side apartment in the days that followed. Although he kept to himself, Lazcko apparently staved off loneliness by collecting his neighbors’ unwanted mail and filling his home with phone books, old newspapers, and shoddy furniture. Lazcko preserved order amid the chaos of broken radios and piled seat cushions by keeping a calendar, in which he recorded the daily temperature and noted the news stories that moved him. On July 15 he entered “94 degrees” in the book. On July 16 he was dead.

Aside from the calendar, the investigators from the Cook County Public Administrator’s office who searched Lazcko’s home for information about friends or family to notify found only a few signs of social life. Lazcko kept a couple of letters sent to him from Hungary in the eighties; a bank statement showing that his last withdrawal, on July 1, brought his account down to less than a thousand dollars; letters concerning lawsuits in which he had been involved years before; and an Easter card he had written in 1991 but never sent. Most of Lazcko’s papers were taken to the public administrator’s office, and the staff would later use them in their efforts to track down someone who could claim his possessions.

Cook County officials brought Lazcko’s corpse to the morgue, where the staff was racing to keep up with the intake. After examining the body, pathologists determined that Lazcko had died of artherosclerotic cardiovascular disease and heat stress. They penned these findings on Lazcko’s death certificate, entered his records into a computer database, and moved his body into storage. The office waited for Lazcko’s next of kin to take care of his remains, but no one ever came. As a recipient of public assistance Lazcko was eligible for burial subsidies from the state, and when it became clear that the body would never be claimed, a public agency interred him in a cemetery nearby.

What happened in Chicago was more than a natural disaster, and its story is more than just a colorful illustration of the human condition.

Solitary in life, Lazcko was joined in death by some five hundred Chicago residents who succumbed to the heat wave and were also taken to the medical examiner’s office for autopsies. The final death toll reached 739 for that week in July, making the event the deadliest heat wave in recorded U.S. history. Most of the victims, like Joseph Lazcko, came into contact with the two things that might have saved them, air conditioning and attention from state agencies, only after their bodies were delivered to the morgue. Some of the victims perished with company nearby. But the majority died alone, behind locked doors and sealed windows that entombed them in suffocating private spaces where visitors came infrequently and the air was heavy and still. The bodies of roughly 170 of the victims went unclaimed until the public administrator’s office launched a campaign to seek out relatives. Even then, almost one-third of the cases never moved beyond the public office. The personal possessions of dozens of the heat wave victims, including Lazcko, remain filed in cardboard boxes at the county building today.

Given the attention that we pay to spectacular and camera-ready disasters such as hurricanes, earthquakes, tornadoes, and floods, it is surprising that more Americans die in heat waves than in all other extreme weather events combined. Heat waves receive little public attention not only because they fail to generate the massive property damage and fantastic images produced by other storms, but also because their victims are mainly social outcasts—the elderly, the poor, and the isolated. Silent and invisible killers of silenced and invisible people, the social conditions that make heat waves so deadly simply do not register with the media or its audience. Despite the unprecedented death toll of the 1995 heat wave, Chicago’s collective response to the trauma has been marked by a will not to know the reasons that so many people died.

This was clearly evident in the city’s immediate reaction. From the public statements of Mayor Richard M. Daley to local TV newscasts, the heat wave was depicted as nothing more than a freakish disaster that drove home the timeless moral lesson of nature’s power and human frailty. As the county medical examiner reported the first wave of deaths, the mayor advised reporters not to “blow it out of proportion,” and then disputed the scientific legitimacy of the medical examiner’s findings. “Every day people die of natural causes,” Daley said at a news conference on July 18. “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.” No one, of course, had made such a sweeping claim. But journalists loved the story of conflict between the mayor and the medical examiner, and the bizarre question of whether the heat deaths were “really real,” to use the phrase that became popular that week, remains a part of the heat wave’s history today.

Others simply blamed the victims. Daniel Alvarez, the city’s human services commissioner, explained that “we’re talking about people who die because they neglect themselves.” The Chicago Sun-Times would soon reveal that the city failed even to implement its own heat-emergency plan, but Alvarez insisted that “we did everything possible. But some people didn’t want to even open their doors to us.” Months later, when the Mayor’s Commission on Extreme Weather Conditions published its findings, such high-minded excuses remained the norm. The commission’s main conclusions: “Government alone cannot do it all,” and “those most at risk may be least likely to want or accept help.” Ultimately, the commission decided, the heat wave was “a unique meteorological event,” an act of God for which there was no defense.

In fact, what happened in Chicago was more than a natural disaster, and its story is more than just a colorful illustration of the human condition. The 1995 heat wave was a social drama that made visible a set of conditions that are always present but difficult to perceive: the literal isolation of a growing population of old, poor, and vulnerable city dwellers; the degradation of urban hotel residences and senior housing complexes; the deterioration of public services thanks to privatization and the “reinvention of government”; and the abject deprivation of “no-go” neighborhoods abandoned by businesses and dropped from the safety net of the state.

The physiological causes of death in the heat wave were obvious. What Chicago needed was a social autopsy, a study of the institutions and relationships that permitted this catastrophe.

It’s difficult to understand at first how a prosperous American city in the nineties could find itself in such a state of crisis. These were boom years for cities like Chicago, insisted the celebratory journalism of the New Economy. Everything looked rosy. Stock prices soared, spawning a lovable bunch of “middle-class” millionaires who built condos and McMansions along city streets. Urban glamour zones replete with chain coffeehouses, bookstores, twee retro furniture shops, and expensive restaurants sprouted up in places professionals had long considered “off the map.” Suburbanites flooded back into the city and property values rose accordingly. Mayor Daley decorated the streets with planters, trees, wrought-iron fences, and designer street lamps, giving new gloss to affluent neighborhoods and tourist destinations. Wrecking crews knocked down the infamous public housing projects and cleared the way for development. Welfare rolls plummeted along with the funds for social service programs, and pundits announced that these were signs of success. Unemployment levels dropped—especially when we removed the two million or so people in prison from the labor statistics. The homeless were cleared off the streets. All that was squalid melted into air.

But putting problems out of sight is not the same as solving them. In a dramatic return of the suppressed, hundreds of the people whom the city had removed from view showed up at the county morgue during the heat wave, and this time around they were impossible to overlook. The morgue typically receives about seventeen bodies per day. By the third day of the heat wave it was receiving more bodies than it could handle, and the staff of fourteen pathologists worked marathon shifts to keep up. A long line of police vehicles carrying dead bodies formed outside, some waiting up to three hours. “It’s like an assembly line in there,” one officer said.

On July 15, 365 Chicagoans died, and the morgue was swamped. The owner of a local meatpacking firm volunteered to bring his fleet of giant refrigerated trucks to the morgue to store the excess cadavers. But the trucks filled up quickly and dozens of bodies remained scattered around the office. The crew brought more trucks through the weekend until there were nine altogether. Parked in the morgue’s lot, the trucks were surrounded by police wagons, radio and television vans, hearses, and private cars. Images of the horrifying scene appeared on front pages and TV screens around the world.

How was such a grotesque tragedy possible in the flourishing city? Who were these people? Why had no one noticed the victims when they were still alive?

Primarily, the victims were elderly, with 73 percent of the heat-related casualties accounted for by people over the age of sixty-five. African-Americans had the highest proportional death rates of any ethno-racial group. Latinos, on the other hand, suffered only two percent of the heat wave deaths. The geography of mortality during the heat wave was hauntingly similar to the everyday organization of urban inequality. The greatest concentrations of death were on the south and west sides of the city, in depleted, largely black areas already afflicted by widespread unemployment, abject poverty, institutional abandonment, and massive depopulation.

“Those most in need of supportive services are precisely those least likely to have access to or to participate in them.”

What allowed the disaster to happen is a more complicated story, a tale of misguided social policy and institutionalized indifference. But before we proceed, let’s give the city the credit it deserves: Chicago’s Department on Aging was among the first city programs in America to focus specifically on the urban elderly, and it offers an impressive range of services. But by the mid-nineties the elderly population was mushrooming and the department’s funding was shrinking so severely that it turned to private foundations for support. So while the state of Illinois ran a budget surplus and while the Chicago Police Department grew to historic levels, the Department on Aging reduced its full-time staff and began to rely on part-time and temporary employees. Curiously, putting city contracts on an entrepreneurial basis provided a perverse incentive for agencies to underestimate the costs of services and overestimate their capacity to provide them. The agencies I studied had bargained themselves into responsibilities that they were strained to provide and had taken on or inherited case loads that required more resources than they could afford. The results are obvious: The dereliction of Chicago’s elderly poor was virtually a structural certainty.

Similarly, the entrepreneurial model also encouraged agencies to understand themselves as purveyors of information about city services to citizens who are expected to become smart shoppers of public goods. Driven by the idea that consumers of city services will not act effectively unless they have good information, city agencies regularly hire expensive advertising firms to publicize their work. As officials explain it, Chicago residents who need public assistance must be able to make choices about the services they want and the programs they prefer. In principle the concept—known, ironically, as “empowerment”—appeals to those frustrated by old-style political bureaucracies, but in fact the market-model of government simply doesn’t work without an unlikely amount of activism on the part of the population in question—in this case elderly people who are isolated and frail.

According to local social workers and case managers that I spoke to, Chicago residents with the lowest levels of education, the weakest ties to mainstream institutions such as government agencies and churches, and the least resources are also the worst prepared to claim the public benefits—from health care to prescription drugs to Social Security income—to which they are entitled. In order to take advantage of public services in the entrepreneurial age one must aggressively seek out public goods, persistently demand them after being turned away on the first try, and enjoy easy access to information and service providers. As welfare historian Robert Halpern has pointed out, “Those most in need of supportive services are precisely those least likely to have access to or to participate in them.” A system of service delivery that only rewards the most capable obviously makes these problems even more severe.

During the nineties, however, not even the best-connected city residents knew where to appeal for assistance in securing the most basic goods: power and water. This was because Chicago, like many cities, had adopted a market-model strategy for punishing consumers who were delinquent on their bills, while Congress slashed the budget of the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP.) The combination placed the elderly poor in a permanent energy crisis. With energy costs rising, government subsidies declining, and incomes fixed, seniors were hit hard with utility bills. While the average Illinois family spends roughly 6 percent of its income on heat during winter months, for low-income families keeping warm takes nearly 35 percent. Summertime utility bills would be just as large if everyone used air conditioning. This is why people in pilot programs to provide air conditioners to the poor have often sold the units rather than install them. But the everyday energy crisis was pressing even during moderate temperatures. The most impoverished seniors I spent time with kept their lights off during the day, letting the television, their most consistent source of companionship, illuminate their rooms. The threat of losing power altogether sentenced these seniors to forms of insecurity so fundamental that most of us would find them intolerable. And yet for most of us their daily crisis was invisible.

Initiated by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in 1978 and fully implemented in 1980, LIHEAP is a relic of an age we were supposedly leaving behind. The program’s budget was consistently cut in the early nineties, leaving Illinois, like most other states with severe winters, unable to provide energy subsidies in summer. According to workers for Chicago Department on Aging, LIHEAP was the program that almost all of their clients needed but could never get.

It was a political factor—our acceptance of inequities, even in a disaster—that sealed the victims’ fate.

LIHEAP was also the sort of program detested by critics of redistributive social policies, and Republicans have spent years campaigning to eliminate energy subsidies for the poor. During the week of July 17, 1995, as the Chicago heat wave deaths were still being counted, the U.S. Senate debated a bill to end the LIHEAP program altogether, settling instead on a cutting its budget again. A few months later the U.S. House of Representatives refused to vote on a funding bill for Education, Health and Human Services unless they could eliminate LIHEAP entirely. Again, the firebrands of the Gingrich revolution settled for a budget cut. None of this seems to have arisen from a real philosophical hostility to federal spending: in fact, during the same term that Congress slashed energy support for the poor, it expanded the federal government’s commitment to subsidize insurance companies and homeowners who suffer property damage in natural disasters.

The heat was bad during July of 1995, but the weather should not be our main concern. What made the heat so deadly were social factors: the isolation of the aged due to social withdrawal and the privatization of everyday life; extreme inequality; and the segregation of affluence from poverty that allows for a blithe but false vision of urban splendor. But it was a political factor—our acceptance of such inequities, even in a disaster—that sealed the victims’ fate.

Advances in medical science, health care, and pension programs have extended the typical American life span, but society has not moved apace. The population of senior citizens who live alone and isolated in cities has been growing considerably in recent years. There are no easy solutions to the challenges posed by the aging and atomizing of society, but it is clear that current strategies to provide social protection by “empowering” the poor or the elderly with choices in the market of goods and services does not work.

For many Americans, though, this failure is invisible. Its consequences are manifested in distant neighborhoods far from the plush enclaves where marketing execs get together with software consultants to ponder the vexing issues of irony and authenticity. Although there is surely some substance behind all the happy rhetoric about America’s urban revitalization in recent years, it is important to remember that what we built was not “urban” in the usual sense. What we have seen is a secession of the successful, a city of extremes in which the rich simply opt out of environments in which they might have to encounter stark deprivation and suffering. Again Chicago led the way, making admirably rapid progress in demolishing its notorious housing projects and eliminating the sight of disrepair even before developing a plan for rehousing the thousands of families displaced in the process. The fate of the former residents is simply not part of the public conversation on the matter. Invisibility awaits them. Those few who have remained in touch with researchers report that they now live in poor, racially segregated neighborhoods similar to the projects except in one crucial respect: they are on the margins of the city, out of sight to the yuppies and buppies now taking their place.

Since the people who have sequestered themselves in affluent zones also direct the agencies assigned to solve these problems, it is no surprise that government has done little to help. The Florida politicos who stole the White House and promised to pare down “excessive” social programs have not hesitated to request federal support when a hurricane topples houses and hotels that private developers built in harm’s way. They happily accept taxpayer handouts when the trouble is theirs. By contrast, the deaths of hundreds of Chicagoans in a heat wave simply do not register. High winds destroy valuable property. Heat waves kill the expendable poor. The ways we respond to these forces of nature—personally, socially, and politically—reveal who we are and what we value today.