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.

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