The Health Legacy of a Heat Wave Heat waves like the one currently sweeping the nation have an impact on public health, especially among the poor and elderly. Michele Norris talks with Eric Klinenberg, author of Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago.
NPR logo

The Health Legacy of a Heat Wave

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
The Health Legacy of a Heat Wave

The Health Legacy of a Heat Wave

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.


And I'm Melissa Block.

Take a look at the weather map today and for much of the country, you'll see orange and red and that's about it. It is hot. Across the Midwest, the Mid-Atlantic, the South and the Southwest, temperatures are topping 90 degrees. The heat index, which measures temperature and humidity, is over 110 in many places.

NORRIS: In Chicago, the city is sending workers door to door to check on people who live alone, especially in poor areas. That has become protocol in Chicago after the deadly 1995 heat wave in the city that led to 739 heat-related deaths over a period of five days.

Eric Klinenberg has examined that event and its aftermath in his book Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago. Klinenberg is a professor of sociology at New York University, and he joins us now from Chicago, and Professor, so glad you could be with us.

Dr. ERIC KLINENBERG (New York University): Happy to be here.

NORRIS: What were the primary lessons from that deadly 1995 heat wave?

Dr. KLINENBERG: The first is simply that heat waves can be catastrophically deadly on a scale that most Americans had not recognized before then. The second is that there are specific populations at risk for heat deaths, the elderly, the poor, the isolated, people who lived in the most segregated and abandoned neighborhoods. And cities need to target their relief effort to those people and places. Now, as you mentioned, the city of Chicago is much better when the extreme summer heat comes. Other cities, however, had not learned their lessons.

NORRIS: Take us back, if you could. Just give us a quick snapshot of what happened in 1995.

Dr. KLINENBERG: In 1995, this extraordinary heat wave was moving through the southwest, killing cattle and chickens on its way up into Chicago. And finally, when it hit, the temperature topped 100 degrees and the heat index, which is the measure of experienced heat, heat and humidity combined, topped 120.

That heat lasted for a couple of days, and unfortunately, the city's health infrastructure broke down and more than 700 people died, many of them alone and isolated and not discovered for hours, if not days, until after they perished.

NORRIS: So what should cities be doing to avert this kind of disaster?

Dr. KLINENBERG: First of all, city governments need to be working closely with the media so that local media are putting out special notices, alerts, health warnings, helping people to learn what they can do to protect themselves before it's too late.

But cities can also do special outreach. In Chicago and some other cities, officials have a list of elderly people who live alone and are likely to be affected by the weather. Cities can open cooling centers, and many in fact do, but they need to think about ways to get frail people and elderly people to those cooling centers. Special transportation programs are necessary. Cities also can monitor the intake at local hospitals, which is something Chicago did not do in 1995.

NORRIS: So how are they doing? I mean, if you had to grade them on their performance, how well have they done?

Dr. KLINENBERG: I'd give them an incomplete. In cities like Chicago that have direct experience with catastrophic heat waves, programs can be quite strong. But other cities that have not had such direct experience are less aggressive in putting together these plans. And whether or not your city is doing the right thing to protect you depends on the whims of who's in charge.

Heat waves actually allow us to see conditions that are always present in American cities, but that don't make the news. And we haven't paid much attention to managing the consequences of extreme heat, even though they kill so many people.

Heat waves also are cruel in that they have a way of pinpointing the most vulnerable members of society - elderly people, people who live alone, African American residents of segregated neighborhoods - and they can be hard to reach. Even today as Chicago sends emergency workers out door to door, it can be very difficult to find the people who are most at risk.

NORRIS: Professor Klinenberg, thanks so much for talking to us.

Dr. KLINENBERG: Thank you.

NORRIS: Eric Klinenberg is the author of Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago. He is a professor of sociology at New York University.

Copyright © 2006 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.