Anyone who lived through the 1995 heat wave in Chicago remembers it, and the memories may be slightly more vivid for those who coped without air conditioning (hand up). It unfolded in the strangest way, a slow-moving disaster—in part natural, in part human—that was only recognized by hospital staffs, first responders, and a very limited number of other people. No one had a big picture view until the statisticians weighed in after the fact. And then, a lot of people denied a disaster had occurred, claimed the coroner or the media had exaggerated the numbers, and so on.
The heat wave inspired a compelling nonfiction book and an excellent novel. Chicago magazine took time out from exhaustively covering beautiful people and the restaurants they love to put together a vivid oral history. In real time we got grass roots heroism, epidemic discomfort and danger, and a classic speech from Mayor Richard M. Daley: “It’s hot. It’s very hot. Yesterday we broke records. We all have our little problems, but let’s not blow it out of proportion. It is a crisis. It’s hot out there. We all walk out there. It’s very, very, very hot.” According to the human services commissioner, the dead failed to care for themselves; a number of wags blamed it on “neighbors” or “all of us” while the mayor too rumbled about a failure of community feeling.
Don’t blame it on me. The mayor could sputteringly channeled Buster Poindexter all he wanted but I suffered with everyone else. Chicagoans deal with a heat wave or two per year. But 1995 was not only hotter than usual. The heat wave just refused to let go. For a string of days temps rose past 100. Nighttime saw “lows” in the eighties. The sheer relentlessness of it was unreal. Being near the lake did no good by day or night because the doldrums weather pattern squatting on the city refused to stir up the least little breeze. The urban heat island added a couple of degrees while the stagnating pollution slathered on another layer or misery, for most, and danger, for the vulnerable.
Observers ever since have called it a “perfect storm” of circumstances exacerbated by an ineffectual government response, and that’s as true as far as it goes. It’s also an illustration of how we remember, or don’t remember, catastrophes. Because seven hundred-some people died–more than in virtually any tornado, hurricane, dericho, or Winter Storm Ivan of the past thirty years—and it’s a footnote in local history.