Deaths of three Chicago women prompt urgent heat warnings

Temperatures barely climbed into the 90s and only for a couple of days. But the discovery of the bodies of three women inside a Chicago senior housing facility this month left the city looking for answers to questions that were supposed to be addressed decades ago and are causing alarm as the planet heats.

The city – and the country – face the reality that because of the climate crisis, deadly heatwaves can strike just about anywhere, don’t only fall in the height of summer and need not last long to be a threat.

“Hotter and more dangerous heatwaves are coming earlier, in May … and the other thing is we are getting older and more people are living alone,“ said Eric Klinenberg, a New York University sociologist.

He wrote Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago about the 1995 heatwave in the city on Lake Michigan that killed more than 700 people.

“It’s a formula for disaster,” he added.

The Cook county medical examiner’s office has yet to determine the causes of death of the three women – identified by local news as Janice Reed, Gwendolyn Osborne and Delores McNeely – whose bodies were found in the James Sneider Apartments north of downtown Chicago on 14 May.

But the victims’ families have filed or plan to file wrongful death lawsuits against the companies that own and manage the buildings.

The city council member whose ward includes the neighborhood where the building is located said she had experienced stifling temperatures in the complex when she visited, including in one unit where heat sensors hit 102F.

“These are senior residents, residents with health conditions. They should not be in these conditions,” said Maria Hadden in a Facebook video shot outside the apartments.

Part of the problem, experts say, is that communities nationwide are still learning how deadly heat can be, as global heating accelerates, disrupting norms.

In Chicago, it took the sight of refrigerated trucks being filled with bodies after the 1995 heatwave to communicate that the city was woefully unprepared for a silent and invisible disaster that took more than twice as many lives as the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.

That realization led to a system in which city workers start calling older and more vulnerable people and turn city buildings into 24-hour cooling centers when temperatures become oppressive.

What happened this month is a reminder that the safeguards in place to make sure people don’t freeze to death because they have not paid their heating bills often do not exist to prevent people from overheating in their homes.

“We have nothing for air conditioning,” Hadden said.

One expert isn’t surprised.

“We recognize people need heating in cold weather and set up programs, financial assistance, to enable that but we don’t do that for cooling,” said Gregory Wellenius, a Boston University professor of environmental health who has studied heat-related deaths.

“But subsidies for cooling are really controversial [because] for many people, cooling is seen as a luxury item.”

In Chicago, Hadden noted the building’s management company apparently but mistakenly believed it was not allowed to turn off the heat and turn on the air conditioning until June 1, because of the city’s heat ordinance.

Wellenius said statistics show that while well over 80% of homes in cities such as Dallas and Phoenix have air conditioning, the percentage is far lower in cities such as Boston and New York.

And in the Pacific north-west, the percentage is even lower, something that came into stark relief in Oregon, Washington and western Canada last June, when temperatures climbed as high as 118F, killing 600 people or more.


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