Tuesday, August 09, 2005

30. Heat Wave

by Eric Klinenberg

It seems like it took me forever to finish this month’s GB book club pick. From a delayed delivery due to Amazon’s idiotic choice to ship the book to me UPS, which isn’t great to begin with and even worse when you have a delivery person who doesn’t ring your bell during their supposed attempts, and the book just being much denser than anything we’ve read, I had to put in some actual work to get it done by the discussion date. Not that it wasn’t interesting. It’s just that I could put it down and with the ridiculous heat we’ve had for the past couple of weeks, reading about our deadliest week of hotness wasn’t something I was too keen on doing.

Heat Wave is Eric Klinenberg’s look into the causes and ramifications of 1995’s fatal streak of hot weather. Over 700 people died heat-related deaths, many of which were preventable. Klinenberg’s main focus is how those deaths could have been prevented and why they weren’t. He turns to politicians, the media, and the city’s social structure for these answers. What I found most interesting out of those three was the racial divisions among the deaths. Certain neighborhoods, and as such certain racial groups, experienced far more deaths than others and that’s something that can’t be blamed on temperature differences throughout the city. Klinenberg found that the groups that had more interaction with their neighbors and elderly family members suffered less and, likewise, those neighborhoods where people felt safer had fewer heat-related fatalities. In these neighborhoods, people didn’t hesitate to go to grocery stores and other public places to take advantage of air conditioning. (You’d think with our heat that air conditioning would be a staple, but sadly, it’s not.) People not in these categories tended to stay cooped up in their homes, even more susceptible to the heat because no one came to check on them. I find it amazing that social networks played such a role in preventing deaths, and isolation in causing deaths.

Also fascinating is how the city government failed to take action during the heat wave. Klinenberg shows how the city officials tried to place blame on the same social networks that the author believes could have saved lives. While it may be true that those communities where people felt safer and more connected to their neighbors experienced fewer deaths, it’s preposterous to think that the responsibility falls solely on the community. The government and the media also failed to give the heat wave the importance it deserved, referring to it in a joking manner and failing to call in backup paramedics, firefighters, and police. The chilling effects of these failures can be seen in the pictures of emergency vehicles, lined up at the morgue and filled with bodies, and in the picture of the mass grave where numerous unclaimed individuals were buried. You don’t think about this happening in the U.S., let alone in your own city. When it does happen, you have to wonder why no one heard about it.

For a sociology geek like me, this was excellent. So often people have no idea what sociology is, assuming you took the major because it was easy. (Which, yes, compared to biology it might be, but nothing is “easy” at the U of C.) Then something like this comes along and I get the satisfaction of pointing my finger and saying, “See! That’s sociology! We are important!” As one of our deadliest natural disasters, the 1995 heat wave is something everyone should know about but few do. I hope Klinenberg’s work sheds some much-needed light on the tragedy - it may have taken me some effort to get through the book, but I’m glad that I read it. It’s just not the type of book I want to open on the El when I’m dripping sweat from a ten-minute walk.

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