Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Heat Can Be Overwhelming; So Can Its Toll

Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Heat Can Be Overwhelming; So Can Its Toll

Article excerpt

Byline: Charlie Patton, Times-Union columnist

When I first read the number, I was staggered.

In fact, I questioned its accuracy. Which, in its odd way, is one of the reasons that the death of more than 700 Chicago residents as the result of a brutal heat wave in July 1995 has been called "one of the greatest and least-known American disasters in modern history."

At the time, hardly anyone, including Chicago city officials and the Chicago media, was willing to accept what the Chicago medical examiner was telling them: that people were dying by the hundreds because of the heat.

"Let's not blow it out of proportion," Mayor Richard Daley said at the time. "Every day people die of natural causes. You cannot claim that everybody who has died . . . died of heat. Then everybody in the summer that dies will die of heat."

As Chicago Sun-Times columnist Neil Steinberg recently wrote, "Even after the death toll began mounting, we were reluctant to believe that what was going on was 'really real.' "

But, as Eric Klinenberg's critically praised new book Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago, establishes, the death toll that week exceeded the city average by 739, with no corresponding decline in the average death toll in the weeks and months that followed.

There are many lessons to be learned from Heat Wave, which is primarily an indictment of the Chicago city government's failure to respond in a timely manner while the city's elderly and poor died in the hundreds.

But for someone living in Jacksonville, the obvious question is: Could it happen here? After all, as all of us can testify near the end of another long, hot summer, heat is a fact of life here.

The somewhat comforting answer is: It appears unlikely.

Since 1990, the Duval County Medical Examiner's Office has recorded 15 deaths as caused by heat, including two this summer. …

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