The great Chicago heat wave, and other unnatural disasters.
In the first week of July, 1995, a strong high-pressure air mass developed over the plains of the Southwest and began moving slowly eastward toward Chicago. Illinois usually gets its warm summer air from the Gulf of Mexico, and the air coming off the ocean is relatively temperate. But this was a blast of western air that had been baked in the desert ovens of West Texas and New Mexico. It was hot, bringing temperatures in excess of a hundred degrees, and, because the preceding two months had been very wet in the Midwest and the ground was damp, the air steadily picked up moisture as it moved across the farmlands east of the Rockies. Ordinarily, this would not have been a problem, since humid air tends to become diluted as it mixes with the drier air higher up in the atmosphere. But it was Chicago’s misfortune, in mid-July, to be in the grip of an unusually strong temperature inversion: the air in the first thousand feet above the city surface was cooler than the air at two and three thousand feet. The humid air could not rise and be diluted. It was trapped by the warmer air above. The United States has cities that are often humid–like Houston and New Orleans–without being tremendously hot. And it has very hot cities–like Las Vegas and Phoenix–that are almost never humid. But for one long week, beginning on Thursday, July 13, 1995, Chicago was both. Meteorologists measure humidity with what is called the dew point–the point at which the air is so saturated with moisture that it cannot cool without forming dew. On a typical Chicago summer day, the dew point is in the low sixties, and on a very warm, humid day it is in the low seventies. At Chicago’s Midway Airport, during the heat wave of 1995, the dew point hit the low eighties–a figure reached regularly only in places like the coastal regions of the Middle East. In July of 1995, Chicago effectively turned into Dubai.
As the air mass settled on the city, cars began to overheat and stall in the streets. Roads buckled. Hundreds of children developed heat exhaustion when school buses were stuck in traffic. More than three thousand fire hydrants were opened in poorer neighborhoods around the city, by people looking for relief from the heat, and this caused pressure to drop so precipitately that entire buildings were left without water. So many air-conditioners were turned on that the city’s electrical infrastructure was overwhelmed. A series of rolling blackouts left thousands without power. As the heat took its toll, the city ran out of ambulances. More than twenty hospitals, mostly on Chicago’s poorer South Side, shut their doors to new admissions. Callers to 911 were put on hold, and as the police and paramedics raced from one home to another it became clear that the heat was killing people in unprecedented numbers. The police took the bodies to the Cook County Medical Examiner’s office, and a line of cruisers stretched outside the building. Students from a nearby mortuary school, and then ex-convicts looking to earn probation points, were brought in to help. The morgue ran out of bays in which to put the bodies. Office space was cleared. It wasn’t enough. The owner of a local meatpacking firm offered the city his refrigerated trucks to help store the bodies. The first set wasn’t enough. He sent another. It wasn’t enough. In the end, there were nine forty-eight-foot meatpacking trailers in the morgue’s parking lot. When the final statistics were tallied, the city calculated that in the seven days between July 14th and July 20th, the heat wave had resulted in the deaths of seven hundred and thirty-nine Chicagoans; on Saturday, July 15th, alone, three hundred and sixty-five people died from the heat. The chance intersection of a strong high-pressure ridge, a wet spring, and an intense temperature inversion claimed more lives than Hurricane Andrew, the crash of T.W.A. Flight 800, the Oklahoma City bombing, and the Northridge, California, earthquake combined.
In “Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago” (Chicago; $27.50), the New York University sociologist Eric Klinenberg sets out to understand what happened during those seven days in July. He looks at who died, and where they died, and why they died. He goes to the county morgue and sifts through the dozens of boxes of unclaimed personal effects of heat-wave victims–”watches, wallets, letters, tax returns, photographs, and record books”–and reads the police reports on the victims, with their dry recitations of the circumstances of death. Here is one for a seventy-three-year-old white woman who was found on Monday, July 17th:
A recluse for 10 yrs, never left apartment, found today by son, apparently DOA. Conditions in apartment when R/O’s [responding officers] arrived thermostat was registering over 90 degrees f. with no air circulation except for windows opened by son (after death).
Here is another, for a seventy-nine-year-old black man found on Wednesday the 19th:
Victim did not respond to phone calls or knocks on victim’s door since Sunday, 16 July 1995. Victim was known as quiet, [kept] to himself and at times, not to answer the door. Landlord . . . does not have any information to any relatives to victim. . . . Chain was on door. R/O was able to see victim on sofa with flies on victim and a very strong odor decay.
The city’s response to the crisis, Klinenberg argues, was to look at people like those two victims–the recluse who did not open her windows and the man who would not answer his door–and conclude that their deaths were inevitable, the result of an unavoidable collision between their own infirmity and an extreme environmental event. As one Health Department official put it at the time, “Government can’t guarantee there won’t be a heat wave.” On the Friday, the human-services commissioner, Daniel Alvarez, told the press, “We’re talking about people who die because they neglect themselves. We did everything possible. But some people didn’t want to open their doors to us.” In its official postmortem four months later, the city sounded the same fatalistic note: the disaster had been a “unique meteorological event” that proved that the “government alone cannot do it all.”
Klinenberg finds that conclusion unacceptably superficial. The disaster may look inevitable, but beneath the surface he sees numerous explanations for why it took the shape it did. One chapter of the book is devoted to a comparison of two adjoining low-income neighborhoods in Chicago, Little Village and North Lawndale. Statistically, the two are almost identical, each with heavy concentrations of poor, elderly people living alone, so it would seem that the heat wave should have taken a similar toll in both neighborhoods. But North Lawndale had ten times the fatality rate of Little Village. Why? Because Little Village is a bustling, relatively safe, close-knit Hispanic community; the elderly had family and friends nearby who could look in on them, and streets and stores where they could go to escape their stifling apartments. North Lawndale, by contrast, is a sprawling, underpopulated, drug-infested neighborhood. The elderly there were afraid to go outside, and had no one close by to visit them. The heat was deadly only in combination with particular social and physical circumstances.
Klinenberg takes an equally close look at the city’s ambulance shortage. The city could have nearly tripled the number of available ambulances by calling in reserves from the suburbs, but it was slow to realize that it had a disaster on its hands. “It’s hot. It’s very hot. But let’s not blow it out of proportion”: this was Mayor Richard Daley’s assessment of the situation on Friday, July 14th. The streamlining of city governments like Chicago’s, Klinenberg explains, isolated city officials. Social-services departments had been professionalized as if they were corporations. Responsibilities had been outsourced. “Police officers replace aldermen and precinct captains as the community sentries,” he writes, and as a result political organizations began to lose contact with the needs of their constituents.
Problem solving, in our day and age, brings with it the requirement of compression: we are urged to distill the most pertinent lessons from any experience. Klinenberg suggests that such distillation only obscures the truth, and by the end of “Heat Wave” he has traced the lines of culpability in dozens of directions, drawing a dense and subtle portrait of exactly what happened during that week in July. It is an approach that resembles, most of all, the way the heat wave was analyzed by meteorologists. They took hourly surface-airways observations of temperature, wind speed, and humidity, estimated radiation from cloud cover, and performed complex calculations using the Penman-Monteith formula to factor in soil-heat flux, latent heat of vaporization, stomatal resistance, and the von Kármán constant. Why, Klinenberg asks, can’t we bring the same rigor to our study of the social causes of disaster?
Take the question of air-conditioning. The Centers for Disease Control, in their Chicago investigation, concluded that the use of air-conditioners could have prevented more than half of the deaths. But many low-income people in Chicago couldn’t afford to turn on an air-conditioner even if they had been given one for free. Many of those who did have air-conditioners, meanwhile, were hit by the power failures that week. Chicago had a problem with a vulnerable population: a lot of very old and very sick people. But it also, quite apart from this, had an air-conditioning problem. What was the cause of that problem?
As it turns out, this is a particularly timely question, since there is a debate going on now in Washington over air-conditioners which bears directly on what happens during heat waves. All air-conditioners consist of a motor and a long coil that acts as a heat exchanger, taking hot air out of the room and replacing it with cold air. If you use a relatively unsophisticated motor and a small coil, an air-conditioner will be cheap to make but will use a lot of electricity. If you use a better motor and a larger heat exchanger, the air-conditioner will cost more to buy but far less to run. Rationally, consumers should buy the more expensive, energy-efficient units, because their slightly higher purchase price is dwarfed by the amount of money the owner pays over time in electric bills. But fifteen years ago Congress realized that this wasn’t happening. The people who generally bought air-conditioners–builders and landlords–weren’t the people who paid the utility bills to run them. Their incentive was to buy the cheapest unit. So Congress passed a minimum standard for air-conditioning efficiency. Residential central air-conditioning units now had to score at least 10 on a scale known as SEER–the seasonal energy-efficiency ratio. One of Bill Clinton’s last acts as President was to raise that standard to 13. This spring, however, the Bush Administration cut the efficiency increase by a third, making SEER 12 the law.
It should be said that SEER 13 is no more technologically difficult than SEER 12. SEER 12 is simply a bit cheaper to make, and SEER 13 is simply cheaper to operate. Nor is this a classic regulatory battle that pits corporate against consumer interests. The nation’s largest air-conditioner manufacturer, Carrier, is in favor of 12. But the second-largest manufacturer, Goodman (which makes Amana air-conditioners), is in favor of 13. The Bush decision is really about politics, and the White House felt free to roll back the Clinton standard because most of the time the difference between the two standards is negligible. There is one exception, however: heat waves.
Air-conditioning is, of course, the reason that electrical consumption soars on very hot days. On the worst day in August, electricity consumption in, say, Manhattan might be three or four times what it is on a cool spring day. For most of the year, a local utility can use the electricity from its own power plants, or sign stable, long-term contracts with other power companies. But the extra electricity a city needs on that handful of very hot days presents a problem. You can’t build a power plant just to supply this surge–what would you do with it during the rest of the year? So, at peak periods, utilities buy the power they need on the “spot” market, and power bought on the spot market can cost fifty times as much as the power used on normal days. The amount of power that a utility has to buy for that handful of hot days every summer, in other words, is a huge factor in the size of our electric bills.
For anyone wanting to make electricity cheaper, then, the crucial issue is not how to reduce average electrical consumption but how to reduce peak consumption. A recent study estimates that moving the SEER standard from 10 to 13 would have the effect of cutting peak demand by the equivalent of more than a hundred and fifty power plants. The Bush Administration’s decision to cut the SEER upgrade by a third means that by 2020 demand will be fourteen thousand megawatts higher than it would have been, and that we’ll have to build about fifty more power plants. The cost of those extra power plants–and of running a less efficient air-conditioner on hot days–is part of what will make air-conditioning less affordable for people who will someday desperately need it.
The sheer volume of electricity required on a very hot day also puts enormous strain on a city’s power-distribution system. On the Friday of the Chicago heat wave, when power demand peaked, one of the main problem areas was the transmission substation (TSS) at California Avenue and Addison Street, in the city’s northwest corner. TSS 114 consists of a series of giant transformers–twenty feet high and fifteen feet across–that help convert the high-voltage electricity that comes into Chicago along power lines into the low-voltage power that is used in offices and homes. Throughout that Friday afternoon, the four transformers in the second terminal at TSS 114 were running at a hundred and eighteen per cent of capacity–that is, they were handling roughly a fifth more electricity than they were designed to carry. The chief side effect of overcapacity is heat. The more current you run through a transformer the hotter it gets, and, combined with the ambient temperature that afternoon, which averaged a hundred and eleven degrees, the heat turned the inside of terminal two into an oven.
At 4:56 P.M., the heat overwhelmed a monitoring device known as a CT–a gauge almost small enough to fit in the palm of one’s hand–on the first of the transformers. It tripped and shut down. The current that had been shared by four transformers had to be carried by just three, making them still hotter. The second transformer was now carrying a hundred and twenty-four per cent of its rated capacity. Fifty-one minutes later, a circuit breaker on the second transformer burst into flames. Transformers are engineered to handle extra loads for short periods of time, but there was just a little too much current and a little too much heat. At 6:19, two more CTs tripped on the third transformer and, as workmen struggled to get the terminal up and running, a CT failed on the fourth transformer. In all, forty-nine thousand customers and all of the people in those customers’ houses and apartments and offices were without air-conditioning for close to twenty hours–and this is merely what happened at TSS 114.
All around the city that week, between Wednesday and Sunday, there were 1,327 separate equipment failures that left an additional hundred and forty-nine thousand customers without power. Those are staggering numbers. But what is really staggering is how easy it would have been to avoid these power outages. Commonwealth Edison, the city’s utility, had forecast a year earlier that electricity use in the summer of 1995 would peak at 18,600 megawatts. The actual high, on the Friday of the heat wave, was 19,201. The difference, in other words, between the demand that the utility was prepared to handle and the demand that brought the city to its knees was six hundred and one megawatts, or 3.2 per cent of the total–which is just about what a place like Chicago might save by having a city full of SEER 13 air-conditioners instead of SEER 12 air-conditioners.
In 1928, a storm near Palm Beach, Florida, killed almost two thousand people, most of them black migrant workers on the shores of Lake Okeechobee. This was, the state comptroller declared, “an act of God.” In 1935, the most severe hurricane in American history hit the Florida Keys, sending a storm surge fifteen to twenty feet high through a low-lying encampment of war veterans working on the highway. About four hundred people died. “The catastrophe must be characterized as an act of God and was by its very nature beyond the power of man,” the Veterans Authority and Federal Emergency Relief Administration declared in an official report. In 1972, an earthen dam put up by a mining company in Logan County, West Virginia, collapsed in heavy rains, killing a hundred and thirty-nine people. It was an “act of God,” a mining-company official said, disavowing any culpability. In 1974, a series of twisters swept across ten states, killing three hundred and fifteen people. Senator Thomas Eagleton, of Missouri, said at the time that his colleagues in Washington viewed the tornado “as an act of God where even the Congress can’t intervene,” explaining why the government would not fund an early-warning system. This is the way we have thought of catastrophes in the United States. The idea of an “act of God” suggests that any search for causes is unnecessary. It encourages us to see disasters, as the environmental historian Ted Steinberg writes in “Acts of God: The Unnatural History of Natural Disaster in America” (2000), simply as things that happen “from time to time.” It suggests, too, that systems or institutions ought to be judged on the basis of how they perform most of the time, under “normal” conditions, rather than by how they perform under those rare moments of extreme stress. But this idea, as “Heat Wave” makes clear, is a grave mistake. Political systems and social institutions ought to be judged the way utilities are judged. The true test is how they perform on a blistering day in July.
Klinenberg tells the story of Pauline Jankowitz, an elderly woman living alone in a third-floor apartment in a transitional neighborhood. Her air-conditioner was old and didn’t work well. She had a bladder problem that left her incontinent, and she had to walk with a crutch because she had a weak leg. That made it difficult for her to get down the stairs, and once she was outside she was terrified of being mugged. “Chicago is just a shooting gallery,” she said to Klinenberg. She left her apartment only about six times a year. Jankowitz was the prototypical heat-wave victim, and, as she told Klinenberg, that week in July was “the closest I’ve ever come to death.” But she survived. A friend had told her to leave her apartment if it got too hot; so, early on what would turn out to be the worst of the seven days, she rose and crept down the stairs. She caught a city bus to a nearby store, which was air-conditioned, and there she bought fresh cherries and leaned on the shopping cart until she recovered her strength. On the trip home, she recalled, “climbing the stairs was almost impossible.” Back in her apartment, she felt her body begin to swell and go numb. She telephoned a friend. She turned a fan on high, lay down on the floor, covered herself with wet towels, and dreamed that she was on a Caribbean cruise. She was poor and old and infirm, but she lived, and one of the many lessons of her story is that in order to survive that week in July she suddenly depended on services and supports that previously she had barely needed at all. Her old air-conditioner was useless most of the time. But that week it helped to keep her apartment at least habitable. She rarely travelled. But on that day the fact that there was a city bus, and that it came promptly and that it was air-conditioned, was of the greatest importance. She rarely went to the store; she had her groceries delivered. But now the proximity of a supermarket, where she could lean on the shopping cart and breathe in the cool air, was critical. Pauline Jankowitz’s life depended not on the ordinary workings of the social institutions in her world but on their ability to perform at one critical moment of peak demand. On the hottest of all days, her neighborhood substation did not fail. Her bus came. Her grocery store was open. She was one of the lucky ones.