The Deadly Chicago Heat Wave Is As Relevant to Racial Justice Today As It Was 25 Years Ago

The documentary “Cooked: Survival by Zip Code” examines the unnatural disasters of environmental and structural racism.

On July 18, 1995, during Chicago's deadly heatwave, Cook County morgue technicians work between a row of refrigerated trucks.

Credit: AP Photo/Mike Fisher

The disturbing images this spring of refrigerated trucks holding bodies of COVID-19 victims in New York City—where the disease has been affecting Black and Latinx communities disproportionately—seemed unprecedented. To many Chicagoans, however, the visual was a painful reminder of their city’s heat wave in 1995, one of the most deadly in U.S. history.

That July, temperatures soared into the 100s for a period of five days. Adjusting for humidity and the heat island effect experienced in many urban neighborhoods, heat index values reached as high as 126 degrees Fahrenheit. By the end, heat-related illnesses had killed 739 Chicagoans, most of whom were poor, elderly, and Black.

“There had been no announcements on the news, no discussion from the city, no checking on people, but the minute you saw…refrigerated trucks, that meant there were so many dead bodies that the coroner didn’t have room for them anymore,” says retired chief medical officer of Cook County Department of Public Health Linda Rae Murray in the documentary Cooked: Survival by Zip Code. “Right there, you knew you were in trouble.”

Meshing archival footage with testimonies from public health officials and community members, the film—now available on PBS—investigates how structural and environmental racism contributed to the catastrophic outcomes in Chicago’s South and West Sides, while the heat wave left the city’s whiter, wealthier areas relatively unscathed.

Such outsize impacts on certain communities reflect what Eric Klinenberg, author of Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago, deems an unnatural disaster—one caused by society, not nature. And, contrary to then-mayor Richard Daley’s strange characterization of the deaths as “nonviolent,” many of the hundreds lost were “[violently] cooked to death behind closed doors,” says Cooked’s Peabody Award–winning director Judith Helfand.

A disproportionate number of the city’s Black population not only had health conditions, such as heart disease, that made them more vulnerable to the extreme weather but they also lacked the means to escape the heat, such as access to air-conditioning in their homes or at local public institutions, or even the ability to safely keep their windows open.

“There’s a saying in Chicago [that] everything is about race. You don’t have to be poor to be Black, and you don’t have to be Black to be poor, but…,” says Mike McReynolds, intake supervisor at the Cook County Medical Examiner’s Office, in the film, insinuating that racialized poverty is not a mere coincidence.

Take a look at maps displaying Chicago’s rates of intergenerational poverty, education attainment, pollution exposure, food insecurity, incarceration, lack of health insurance, and chronic health conditions, and you’ll see that the city’s Black and Latinx neighborhoods are systemically deprived of life-affirming resources.

These conditions have been produced and reinforced by insidious practices such as redlining, predatory loaning, and siting polluting industries in communities that lack the political influence to stop them. They segregate Chicago, plunder Black wealth, and stifle financial opportunities for Black households and businesses.

“When I was growing up around here, it would be full of people out and about—kids playing, adults coming to and from work. There were all kinds of things up and down Halsted [Street]. It was this vibrant place to be,” says community organizer Orrin Williams in the film, as he drives through Englewood, a once-thriving neighborhood that deteriorated economically over the decades before the heat wave. Williams thinks the outcome would have been much different had the heat wave happened at an earlier time. “When it got really hot, people would sleep on the back porch or sleep in the park. People felt much safer.”

A nurse takes blood from a COVID-19 patient in the emergency room at Roseland Community Hospital on the South Side of Chicago on April 22, 2020.
Credit: REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

Twenty-five years later, maps of the heat wave deaths coincide by neighborhood with Chicago’s COVID-19 infection, morbidity, and mortality rates, according to Josh McGhee of the Chicago Reporter, who participated in the Summer of Extremes: Racism, Health Inequity & Heat forum that Helfand helped organize.

Chicago is, of course, a microcosm of the United States. Nationally, Black Americans and Indigenous people have been hospitalized for COVID-19 at a rate five times that of whites. For the Latinx community, hospitalization rates have been four times higher.

“The health inequities that exist are not accidents. They are created by people,” says Murray. “Racism is not a disaster. It’s something that human beings invented and created and keep healthy.”

While millions of dollars have been funneled into Chicago’s heat emergency plan since 1995 and preventative, community-based efforts were launched to try to protect people during extreme weather, little has been done to address what Helfand calls the “slow-motion disasters” that negatively impact a community’s overall health, resiliency, and life expectancy.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has a similarly narrow approach to disaster preparation. According to FEMA representatives in Cooked, which also examines the devastating, disproportionate impacts that Hurricane Katrina had on Black people in New Orleans, poverty reduction is not within their jurisdiction.

Relief from any type of disaster shouldn’t be a luxury offered to select communities, which is why Helfand is calling on governments to declare structural racism a public health crisis and account for it in their disaster preparation plans. So far, more than 92 states, cities, and counties—including Cook County—have made that declaration. In a warming world, disaster measures that back up those words couldn’t come soon enough for communities on the frontlines of climate change.

The year 2020 is on track to become the hottest year on record, with Chicago already setting heat records this summer. And it’s all happening amid the coronavirus, racial injustice, and economic crises. We already know who these concurrent disasters are harming the most—and allowing them to take the brunt, time and again, of both natural and unnatural disasters is unacceptable.

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