Chicago Heatwave – 1995

The American Midwest has suffered severe heatwaves throughout the years, but the one that struck in 1995 was extreme. From July 10-16, the heat was unbearable, exacerbated by super-high humidity. The city authorities were very slow to respond, only releasing an emergency warning on the final day.

In Chicago, a heat island aggravated the situation. These occur in urban settings, where buildings and roads absorb heat during the day without dissipating it at night, thus becoming and remaining hotter than normal. With no breeze, pollutants and humidity stayed at ground level. Indoors, at night, temperatures reached over 32°C (90°F), and people began to die. Those who could, left the city.

Air conditioning units worked overtime, and energy use reached record highs. Power failed and at one stage 49,000 households in the city were without electricity. Roads buckled, railway lines warped, and city employees watered the bridges to prevent expansion and locking. The Fire Department hosed down school children travelling in buses as hot as ovens, and by July 14 thousands of people had heat-related illnesses. Ambulances, supplemented by fire trucks, could not cope with the emergency calls, hospitals were overflowing and about 20 shut their emergency rooms to new patients. The city morgue, with 222 bays, needed a fleet of refrigerated trucks to contain the extra bodies.

The victims were mainly poor people living alone in the city center. They either had no air conditioning or could not afford to use it, and fear of crime prevented many from opening their doors and windows, particularly at night. The worst hit were single, elderly, black men. Black women, hispanics and whites fared a little better.

Afterwards, no official death toll was given, but figures show 739 extra deaths that week in comparison to all previous years on record.

When: July 10-16 1995

Where: Chicago and much of the Midwest, USA

Death toll: At least 739

You should know: The Mayor of Chicago called the situation a unique, meteorological catastrophe. But a public hearing found that the city’s support systems had failed, and as a result warning systems and procedures were strengthened, in 1999, another heatwave struck the city and this time the death toll reached 110 people – still dreadful, but a considerable improvement.

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