Dead hot in the windy city Dead heat in the windy city

So there's been a heatwave in Chicago. But did 400 people have to die? asks Daniel Jeffreys

Ed Donoghue sounds tired and he feels sick. "We've had 50 new bodies in the past 24 hours and many are badly decomposed." Dr Donoghue is the coroner for Chicago's Cook County. His district is the very centre of America's second city, and he's devastated. "This is an unprecedented disaster," he says. "We're in a state of shock."

Chicago has not had a plane crash - just a heatwave. By Thursday, a week after temperatures started to soar, Cook County had attributed more than 440 deaths to heatstroke or heat exhaustion, and the total will rise. The morgue at the county coroner's office has room for just 220 corpses.

"We now have 10 refrigerated trucks in the parking lot," says Dr Donoghue. "Each holds about 30 bodies and about half are still full ... We have another hot spell coming this weekend, so we expect more deaths. Plus, we won't find all those who died last week right away: we'll still be finding their bodies for the next two months."

No US city has ever lost so many people to heat. On 13 July temperatures in Chicago reached 106F (41C) and humidity 92 per cent, on the hottest day in recorded memory. "The air was like breathing underwater," says Dr John Wilhelm at the Chicago Department of Health. "Going indoors to the air-conditioning was like surfacing: you could breathe again. Many of those who died simply lacked the means to surface."

By that he means that most victims were poor and old. The average age of the dead was 68 and most had few resources. "Probably less than 10 per cent of the deceased had an air-conditioning unit," says Dr Donoghue.

Willie May Gross and her husband Andrew were typical victims. Willie was 75; her husband was 65. "I found them on Sunday morning, around midday," says George Tallent, the janitor at their building. "Andy had collapsed on top of a cheap old fan; even if he'd got it going it would have been no good. We found Willie May dead in her armchair; I don't know which one went first. The cops said the temperature in the apartment was over 130F [55C]."

Then the couple's daughter arrived. "She came over and the morgue told her they couldn't take the bodies. She had to find a funeral home. In this heat, her parents dead, she had to find a telephone and find a funeral home. The bodies were still there at midnight."

"I admit, at first we were overwhelmed." says Dr Donoghue. "Nobody had a route map for this. It was totally uncharted territory." But that's not true. In 1983 St Louis, in the steamy state of Missouri, had a similar problem. It lost more than 120 citizens to a heatwave, and subsequently drew up a plan to prevent any repetition. "We have three levels of heat warning," says Dr Linda Fisher, St Louis's chief medical officer. "Radio and TV stations must broadcast them all, from heat warning to heat alert to heat emergency. We open cooling centres and the city helps certain at-risk groups to buy or borrow air-conditioners."

"We have a similar system," says Dr Donoghue. "But ours is geared to cold weather. We know all about winter - we have some of the worst in the US. We just don't normally get these kind of temperatures." The average here in the summer is usually in the 80s. Last weekend New York had the same heatwave and only 11 heat-related deaths - but New Yorkers are used to stifling heat, with average summer temperatures in the low 90s.

The mercury has fallen a little in Chicago but the political heat is intensifying. "This was almost an act of genocide against our elderly people," says Jennifer Neary, the executive director at Chicago's Seniors in Action, a charity that works on behalf of retired people. She is especially angry about the "cooling-centre scandal".

"The city set up 11 cooling centres - big gymnasiums where the elderly could go and find air conditioning - but they barely publicised their existence and they provided no transportation until the crisis was over," she says. "Old people had to leave their apartments in 100-degree heat, negotiate a high-crime zone to reach a bus stop and wait in the heat for a bus ... Why weren't the police mobilised to help them?"

For Chicago's Mayor, Richard Daly, the past week has been a public-relations nightmare. "Now the bodies are piling up, the Mayor is looking for people to blame," says Ms Neary. "At one stage Daly even said the old people were responsible for their own deaths!"

Before the death toll climbed above 200, Mayor Daly appeared on local television. "We are talking about people that die because they neglected themselves," he said. "We all have our little problems, but let's not blow it out of proportion." Then he blamed the local electricity company, which allowed 50,000 Cook County residents to lose their power for most of last weekend. Then Dr Donoghue pointed out that almost all those who died had no air conditioning - and the Mayor's medical officer accused the coroner of using "a too liberal definition" of "heat-related death" and implied he had inflated his numbers. He also leaked a suggestion that more than 100 of the deaths would have happened anyway as the usual "wear and tear".

"The truth is, we were unprepared," says Dr Donoghue. With all US cities reducing their public spending, tough choices must be made every day. Chicago is more prone to extremes of cold than of heat, and concentrates resources on battling the winter, which leaves little to cope with a sudden heatwave.

As Chicago sweltered last weekend, the film Apollo 13 - based on the narrow escape of three astronauts in 1970 - racked up record takings at the box office. It seems America can put a man on the moon and rescue endangered astronauts but 25 years later can't save hundreds of pensioners.

Suggested Topics
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
Life and Style

Board creates magnetic field to achieve lift

There have been various incidents of social media users inadvertently flouting the law

Life and Style
Stack ‘em high?: quantity doesn’t always trump quality, as Friends of the Earth can testify
techThe proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
Bourgogne wine maker Laboure-Roi vice president Thibault Garin (L) offers the company's 2013 Beaujolais Nouveau wine to the guest in the wine spa at the Hakone Yunessun spa resort facilities in Hakone town, Kanagawa prefecture, some 100-kilometre west of Tokyo
CSKA Moscow celebrate after equalising with a late penalty
footballCSKA Moscow 2 Manchester City 2: Premier League champions let two goal lead slip in Russia
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    **Primary Teachers Needed Urgently in Southport**

    £80 - £120 per day: Randstad Education Liverpool: **Due to an increase in dema...

    SEN Teaching Assistant Runcorn

    £50 per day: Randstad Education Cheshire: SEN Teaching Assistant EBD , Septemb...

    Nursery Assistant/Nurse all cheshire areas

    £7 per hour: Randstad Education Cheshire: We are a large and successful recrui...

    SEN Teaching Assistant

    £50 per day: Randstad Education Cheshire: SEN Teaching Assistant We are curr...

    Day In a Page

    Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

    A new American serial killer?

    Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
    Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

    Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

    Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
    Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

    Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

    Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
    Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

    Wildlife Photographer of the Year

    Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
    Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

    Want to change the world? Just sign here

    The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
    Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals

    'You need me, I don’t need you'

    Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals
    How to Get Away with Murder: Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama

    How to Get Away with Murder

    Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama
    A cup of tea is every worker's right

    Hard to swallow

    Three hospitals in Leicester have banned their staff from drinking tea and coffee in public areas. Christopher Hirst explains why he thinks that a cuppa is every worker's right
    Which animals are nearly extinct?

    Which animals are nearly extinct?

    Conservationists in Kenya are in mourning after the death of a white northern rhino, which has left the species with a single male. These are the other species on the brink
    12 best children's shoes

    Perfect for leaf-kicking: 12 best children's shoes

    Find footwear perfect to keep kids' feet protected this autumn
    Anderlecht vs Arsenal: Gunners' ray of light Aaron Ramsey shines again

    Arsenal’s ray of light ready to shine again

    Aaron Ramsey’s injury record has prompted a club investigation. For now, the midfielder is just happy to be fit to face Anderlecht in the Champions League
    Comment: David Moyes' show of sensitivity thrown back in his face by former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson

    Moyes’ show of sensitivity thrown back in his face... by Ferguson

    Manchester United legend tramples on successor who resisted criticising his inheritance
    Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

    Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

    Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
    British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

    British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

    Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
    Ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities - not London, or Edinburgh, but Salisbury

    Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel 2015

    UK city beats Vienna, Paris and New York to be ranked seventh in world’s best tourist destinations - but it's not London