The temperatures barely reached the 90s for just a few days. The discovery of the bodies and remains of three elderly women in a Chicago senior housing facility last month left the city searching for answers to questions that had been asked after a much longer and more intense heat wave nearly three decades ago.
The reality is that heat waves are not only dangerous in summer, but can also strike anywhere. This is a problem facing both the country and the city.
Eric Klinenberg, an sociologist at New York University, said that heat waves are becoming more severe and more dangerous earlier than usual. He also wrote about the 1995 heat wave, "Heat Wave: a Social Autopsy of Disasters in Chicago" in his book "Heat Wave". It's a recipe for disaster.
The Cook County Medical Examiner's Office has not yet determined the cause of death for the three victims whose bodies were discovered in the James Sneider Apartments on Mai 14. However, the families of the victims have filed or plan to file wrongful-death lawsuits against the companies who own and manage these buildings.
According to the City Council member representing the neighborhood in which the building is located, she was subject to oppressive temperatures when she visited the complex. One unit had heat sensors that reached 102 degrees.
Alderman Maria Hadden stated that these were senior residents and residents with serious health issues. She was speaking outside the apartments in a Facebook video.
Experts say that the problem is partly due to the fact that people in all parts of the country are still learning about how dangerous heat can be. Refrigerated trucks filled with bodies from Chicago's 1995 heat wave was enough to show that the city was not prepared for an invisible and silent disaster that claimed more than twice the lives of the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.
This realization led to the creation of a system where city workers call the elderly or frail and transform city buildings into cooling centers that can be used 24 hours a day when it becomes too hot.
This month's events are a reminder of the fact that even though there are safeguards to ensure people don’t freeze to death if they haven’t paid their heating bills, these safeguards often fail to stop people from overheating their homes.
Hadden stated, "We don't have any air conditioning."
One expert doesn't surprise.
Gregory Wellenius, an environmental health professor at Boston University who studies heat-related deaths, said that while we recognize that people need heating in cold temperatures, we also set up financial assistance programs to help them. Subventions for cooling are controversial because cooling is considered a luxury item by many.
Hadden stated that Chicago's building management believed it was prohibited from turning off heat and air conditioning until June 1 because of Chicago's heat ordinance. Although Hadden said that the ordinance does not require such a requirement, this explanation could be used to suggest that the ordinance needs to be changed in order better protect heat-sensible people.