Fatal heat wave of '95 changed emergency response in Chicago
A week of temps over 100 claimed more than 700 lives; mostly poor and elderly residents
By Bonnie Miller Rubin and Jeremy Gorner
CHICAGO — Twenty years ago this week, Chicago was gripped by one of the city's worst natural disasters: a scorching heat wave that claimed more than 700 victims, mostly the poor, elderly and others on society's margins.
The temperature hit 106 degrees on July 13, 1995, and would hover between the high 90s and low triple digits for the next five days. Dozens of bodies filled the Cook County medical examiner's office. On a single day — July 15 — the number of heat-related deaths reached its highest daily tally of 215; refrigerated trucks were summoned to handle the overflow of corpses.
Two decades later, the collective failings that contributed to the death toll are now well-documented: a city caught off guard, social isolation, a power grid that couldn't meet demand and a lack of awareness on the perils of brutal heat.
That one sweltering week would change the way Chicago responds to and prepares for all emergencies. The lessons learned went beyond extreme weather, shaping the city's public safety strategy for any mass event, from the Air & Water Show to the recent Blackhawks Stanley Cup victory parade, city and health officials said.
In 1995, the Office of Emergency Management and Communications was just getting underway with fire and police dispatch operations in one location. Today, the office includes emergency responders, as well as the 311 Call Center, Traffic Management Authority and a public infrastructure center, all under one roof.
The consolidation makes it easier to see an impending threat as it unfolds and mobilize resources where they are needed most, said Gary Schenkel, the executive director of the Office of Emergency Management.
"We now have the ability to see the big picture, so if power goes out in a critical area — for example, one with a lot of senior housing — we can get ComEd to those areas first," Schenkel said.
The ability to see patterns also means the city can respond better, such as opening cooling centers at public libraries or police stations. Urging residents to check in on family and friends became another critical part of the message.
And if people are afraid to leave their homes, as was the case in 1995 in some high-crime neighborhoods: "Then we can reach out and move them into cooling buses for a few hours," Schenkel said.
The advent of heat advisories and a 311 phone number to reach City Hall — which also didn't exist in 1995 — have also been game changers; someone in Philadelphia with an elderly mother living alone in Chicago can call the 311 center, and a well-being check will be conducted by the appropriate agency, Schenkel said.
As a reporter for a local news radio station, Larry Langford recalled monitoring Fire Department frequencies during that long week.
"What struck me was hearing more and more well-being checks, followed by calls for ambulances. You could hear the stress ... because they were collecting people instead of helping people," said Langford, now a Chicago Fire Department spokesman.
To be fair, the public hadn't had much experience with heat waves in 1995, said Cory Franklin, director of intensive care at Cook County Hospital, now Stroger, during that fateful week. The most recent prolonged spell of oppressive temperatures was in 1955, and "it's something people have to re-learn every generation," he said.
By the time health officials started noting clusters of fatalities — more than twice the number of victims in the Chicago Fire — all they could do was play catch-up, Franklin said.
Of course, air conditioners could have cut the number of deaths in half, according to authorities. But thousands who had them couldn't use them because of power failures, and still others couldn't afford them. In 1995, even Cook County Hospital didn't have simple window units in the open wards, Franklin said.
"We had some patients with cardiovascular problems who literally developed heatstroke while they were in the hospital. That is almost unprecedented ... the only other time I've ever heard of that happening was during Katrina at Charity (Hospital) in New Orleans," said Franklin, who is now retired.
Dr. Dino Rumoro, chairman of emergency medicine at Rush University Medical Center, was a newly minted physician at Resurrection Hospital on the Northwest Side when the city turned into a furnace.
"That heat wave became my research for the next 20 years," Rumoro said. The experiences even helped land him a federal grant to protect the city from bioterrorism threats post-9/11.
The biggest change is the improved technology and software that can produce data and pick up any aberrant trends, making it easier to address crises before they happen, he said.
Something definitely weird was going on in 1995, when Rumoro noticed an unusual amount of 20- and 30-year-olds with renal failure. Their kidneys were shutting down because they decided to go for a run, despite the lethal temperatures, he said.
"There wasn't a lot of sharing of information. When you got off your shift, you might tell the person who relieved you, but that was about it. We just didn't connect the dots."
Former Chicago police Officer Charley Henson was nostalgic Tuesday when he looked at a Tribune photo of himself from 20 years ago leaning on a car to take a breather. Henson recalled that he and his partner had just carried a woman's body down three flights of stairs from a steamy Englewood apartment building after a well-being check.
The woman's husband also died in the apartment, where most of the windows were closed and there was no sign of a functioning air conditioner or fan, Henson said.
"I think the Fire Department came and they said it was 103 or 107 (degrees) in the apartment," he said.
Henson, now retired from the police force and working as a security guard at the John Marshall Law School, was used to responding to tragedy from working in the crime-plagued Englewood District. But this incident stuck with him, he said.
"We were hoping it was just going to be, 'Hey, you really need to call home, your son, daughter, aunt, uncle, whatever, and let them know that you're all right,' " he said. "But it didn't turn out that way."
©2015 the Chicago Tribune