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Revisited: Chicago Heat Wave of 1995

Current weather advisories stem from hundreds of 1995 related heat deaths in Chicagoland.

In this very hot week, you've probably heard several advisories reminding you to check on elderly and ill neighbors.

They're a legacy of the week of July 14 to 20, 1995, when Chicago temperatures rose to 106 degrees, with heat indexes of 120. During that week, somewhere between 465 to 739 people died in the city, depending on whose criteria you use. 

Author Eric Klinenberg did in-depth analysis of who died, and in his book, Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago, found most were elderly, and often ill. They were socially isolated, typically did not get out of the house much, tended to be lower-income and of course, did not have air conditioners.

On July 13, 1995, temperature in the Chicagoland area hit 106 degrees, with the heat index above 120. For a week temperatures would hover between 90 degrees and the low 100s.

Additionally, electricity was being used at record highs and eventually more than 49,000 households were without power from the spike in energy use.

Klinenberg also notes that social isolation with a big cause, by noting that twice as many men died as women, whom sociologists say are better at maintaining social relationships. Also, while Latinos made up 25 percent of Chicago's population in 1995, they only accounted for 2 percent of those who died from the heat--a fact Klinenberg attributes to the close family and neighborhood relationships in Latino neighborhoods.

The ratio of African American deaths to white deaths was 1.5 to 1, which Klinenberg attributes to the fact that many elderly African-Americans lived in declining neighborhoods without networks of neighbors who knew each other. 

Partly because of disasters like July 1995, public health experts now recite advisories to stay in air-conditioned rooms, go to cooling centers, stay hydrated and check on the elderly and ill-especially the socially isolated. Physicians and others say it's the only way to keep heat from turning deadly.

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