1995 Chicago heat wave killed 739 people over 5 days
CHICAGO (WLS) -- During the summer, Chicago's sweltering heat seems inescapable . But according to the ABC7 Data team summers in the city are expected to get even hotter, with more than a week's worth of days that feel like 100 degrees or hotter by 2050.
Nearly 30 years ago, Chicago experienced one of the worst heat-related disasters in the country during the 1995 heat wave.
There were 739 deaths reported over a five day-stretch. Crystal Tate remembers it like it was yesterday.
"We had to treat a lot of people with heat exhaustion and dehydration," she said.
She was a lifeguard at 31st Street Beach during that week. Her grandfather died alone, with no access to air conditioning.
"We found out that he did pass and nobody was there," Tate said.
It's those Chicagoans, older and isolated, many in predominantly Black and brown neighborhoods, who bore the brunt of the heat and heat related deaths in 1995.
The ABC7 Data Team analyzed research from the First Street Foundation, a non-profit that studies climate risk data, and found Cook County could have up to 16 days a year that feel like 100 degrees or hotter by 2050.
More heat, maybe worse than 1995, is coming. Are we prepared?
"This is not a future conversation," said Kyra Woods, project manager for the Office of Climate and Environmental Equity at the Chicago Department of Public Health. "We are no longer in a state of just planning for a scenario. We are planning for now."
According to Woods, the city its and partners are keenly aware of the racial inequity faced by Chicagoans when it comes to heat and the environment.
"This a matter of having other assets in communities like splash pads, or increasing the number of places that can be cooling centers and heating centers in the extreme cold temperatures," she said.
It also includes having a neighborhood level response network and potentially neighborhood level heat alerts.
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Climate experts like University of Illinois - Chicago Professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences Max Berkelhammer said more can and should be done.
"Heat is the number one weather related killer in this country," he said. "It's something we have to be responding to all the time."
And he said there are low-cost solutions available.
"Shade your bus shelters, shade your el stops, give that protection to people waiting outside," Berkelhammer said.
Higher cost solutions include increasing tree canopy in areas that need it, something the city is working to do and creating more heat resilient buildings.
Because what global warming does, according to Berkelhammer, is make heat waves and naturally hot periods worse.
"And that little extra heat can be the difference between crossing a threshold between being, let's say, an uncomfortable day, versus one that becomes a deadly day," said Berklehammer.
In the 1995 Chicago heat wave, refrigerated trucks had to be in to house bodies when the morgue was at its max.
"Right now, as a physician who was at 1995 in front of Cook County Hospital System literally crying with other physicians watching 739 people die in four days, the city is no more prepared now than it was then," said Dr. Howard Ehrman who is now the co-fonder of the People's Response Network.
Ehrman took part in a heat mapping project in every city neighborhood to guide government on where to provide more resources because he said those with the least are most at risk now.
A monument in Homewood Memorial Gardens Cemetery in the south suburbs is dedicated to the dozens of heat wave victims who were unclaimed and unidentified, forgotten in life but not in death,"
Despite how grim that event was, the silver lining is the way people recognize the importance of heat mitigation," said Berklehammer.
This is something that goes beyond the city. All of our collar counties are expected to see more than a dozen feels-like temperature days of 100 degrees or hotter on the high end by 2050, so experts say efforts need to start now to prepare.