By Elaine Hegwood Bowen, M.S.J.
“From the 1995 Chicago heat wave, deep into the ‘natural’ disasters we’re willing to prepare for and the unnatural ones we’re not.”
After watching an advance screening for the film “Cooked: Survival By Zip Code,” I sat in my car for a bit with the windows up, no air conditioning, on an 85-degree Chicago summer late afternoon. I couldn’t stand the heat for more than a few minutes. So, one could imagine what the disadvantaged, poor, seniors of color in Chicago who perished during the 1995 heat wave endured while expiring in their homes or waiting for help that proved to be futile in the end.
Recently, the West Coast experienced measurable earthquakes. Towns hold disaster preparedness drills around the nation, and hurricanes, tornadoes and even fires destroy lives and property. In hindsight, experts assert that Chicago could have benefited from some “before care,” which would have helped save lives during that hot summer.
Directed by Judith A. Helfand “Cooked” looks at the tragedy in Chicago and other weather-related phenomena across the country. The documentary asks many questions: Whether systemic poverty could be one reason for the uneven survival rates of people affected by natural disasters? What if we addressed poverty as a preemptive check on the effects of such a disaster—before they ever even happen? Did people die of heat or of the social conditions in the neighborhood?
According to details presented in the documentary, which is adapted from Eric Klinenberg’s ground-breaking book “HEAT WAVE: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago,” afterward Chicago officials developed an emergency plan that was reportedly implemented in other cities. But not before the top city official, Mayor Richard M. Daley, initially made light of the heat wave. He is quoted in the documentary: “We go to extremes in Chicago, and that’s why people love Chicago.”
It was heart wrenching to watch, as Valerie Brown spoke of finding her grandmother, Alberta Washington, on the South Side. The LaGrou trucking company had been hired to store bodies in refrigerated trucks. Brown wondered out loud whether authorities “laid her body on top of other bodies like a cord of wood.” And then when other dead bodies were collected, were those bodies just thrown on top of her grandmother’s body?
To refresh, a heat wave hit Chicago during the period July 12 through July 16, 1995. On July 13, 1995, the temperature in Chicago hit 104 degrees, with a heat index (a combination of the temperature and humidity) of 119. Some reports set the temperature at 106 degrees. The trucking company was called because the Cook County Medical Examiner’s office couldn’t store all the dead bodies that resulted from the heat. In the end, the official death count was 739.
City authorities referred to non-violent deaths during that period, not considering the heat victims: The documentary notes: “Being cooked to death behind closed doors seemed to be pretty violent.”
One of the documentary experts, the late Steve Whitman, Ph.D., who was with the Chicago Department of Public Health, pondered why people were dying. The short answer could have been that neighborhood conditions were not conducive to them getting relief from the drastic temperatures. “They can’t defend themselves against the heat. It’s hot, and there is no air conditioning, and they can’t open the windows.” He further surmised that the elderly living on the South and West sides didn’t feel safe about going outside for relief.
“There were some pre-existing conditions, there should have been more cooling centers. The poor, Black residents suffered the most deaths. Everything is about race,” said Linda Rae Murray, M.D., former Cook County Chief Medical Officer. She added that she wasn’t shocked by the death toll—just enraged.
There was plenty of blame to go around, with city big wigs blaming the families of senior citizens—saying that more able-bodied relatives should have checked on the elders. A member of the Sweet Holy Spirit Church made a keen observation about those officials making insensitive comments: “They had cool places, but there was a lack of compassion.”
The film looks at other reasons for poverty and access across the city—which were really at the root of this disaster. A look at the Englewood community today and the “impact of generations of neglect and denial” pointed to some growth—with community gardens and mobile food operations—while also pointing to despair within the unsafe, boarded up buildings and vacant lots.
Director Helfand was prompted to make this documentary after she visited her family members in Westchester County, New York, during Hurricane Sandy in 2012. Her family was able to weather the storm—so to speak. However, she wondered how people without means made do during similar situations.
Out of that curiosity comes a great look at the 1995 Chicago heat wave, among other catastrophes, as well as ways to address and get ahead of these so-called “disasters in slow motion.” In essence, “Can you [society] help rescue folks before they need rescuing?”
Elaine Hegwood Bowen is the author of “Old School Adventures from Englewood—South Side of Chicago.” For book information http://tiny url.com/om4hvgo or email: editor- firstname.lastname@example.org.