Michelle Martin

Hot enough?

Wednesday, August 30, 2023

I spent a lot of time over the past week talking to my children about the heat wave of 1995, as we braced for, and then lived through, the hottest temperatures Chicago has seen in more than a decade.

Unlike even my young adult children, I was here in 1995, not much older than my oldest is now. I was working for a suburban newspaper, covering the heat, and driving home to the city and hoping that we would still have power, and thus, air conditioning, as the demand for power overwhelmed the system.

Heat waves, I reminded them, are the deadliest natural disasters. Five days of temperatures from the mid-90s up to 106 degrees, combined with high humidity, in July 1995 led to more than 700 deaths, mostly of poor elderly people who lived on the South and West sides.

As the heat built, the Cook County morgue brought in refrigerated trucks to store bodies of those who had died. Months later, the Cook County Medical Examiner’s Office said the heat had contributed to 465 deaths between July 14 and July 20, 1995. A 1997 study published in the American Journal of Public Health, which looked at excess deaths during that week, put the toll at 739 people.

So it made sense, I explained to Teresa, to cancel classes in her un-air conditioned school on a day the temperature reached 100 degrees and the heat index hit 120 degrees, tying a record. She didn’t need much convincing after a half-day of classes the previous day, when the temperature reached 98 degrees with a heat index of 116 degrees.

The heat index measures the combined effect of heat and humidity, which makes it more difficult for sweat to evaporate and cool the human body.

Many of the people who died in 1995 didn’t have air conditioning, or, if they did, refused to turn it on because of the cost. Some, especially elderly people, seemed to be afraid to sleep with their windows open, or to leave their homes to seek cool places elsewhere. One study found that elderly women fared better than elderly men, because they were more connected to social networks.

The 1995 heat wave was far from the first in Chicago, and not even the hottest. But heat waves during the Dust Bowl years of the 1930s generally came with far less humidity — and in those years, people coped by not only opening windows, but by sleeping in parks and on beaches, near the cooler waters of Lake Michigan.

While it had been more than 10 years since official temperatures in Chicago reached triple digits, predictions are that there will be hotter summers and more volatile weather in coming years as the effects of climate change become ever more evident.

What can we do now? Besides taking measures to fight climate change, we must also make an effort to build community, making it easier to check in on friends and neighbors. That could mean going to your block party, sitting on your front porch and saying hello to people as they pass, or attending Mass at your local parish.

Who knows? Maybe someone will even offer you a cool drink.



  • family life