Heat Wave: a Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago

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Eric Klinenberg, assistant professor of sociology at New York University (formally of Northwestern University), wrote "Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago" in order to further investigate the devastating Chicago heat wave of 1995. From July 13h to July 20th, the heat led to over 700 deaths and thousands being hospitalized due to heat related illness. Following the catastrophe, there have been numerous medical, meteorological, and epidemiological studies done examining the reasons for the historic mortality rate, but none seemed to focus on the on underlying issues such as social etiology. In "Heat Wave", Klinenberg, a Chicago native, takes his fascination with the social possibilities surrounding the event to greater depths. Above all, Klinenberg focuses on two major concerns; first, what are the social conditions that made it possible for hundreds of Chicago residents-most of them old, alone, and impoverished- to die during the one week heat spell? (Klinenberg, pg 18) And second, to "analyze the symbolic construction of the heat wave as a public event and experience….to impose as universally applicable a common set of standards and categories, such as natural disaster, that become legitimate frames for making sense of an unexpected situation." (Klinenberg, pg 23)

Chapter 1, "Dying Alone," examines the aging population of urban residents who live alone, often without proximate or reliable sources of routine contact and social support. During 16 months of fieldwork, Klinenberg spent ample time conversing with over forty seniors, which helped him to better understand and convey ideas on how living alone had affected heat wave deaths. Because so many elderly had died alone in their houses, only to be found due to the stench of their decaying bodies as Klinenberg had vividly described, this research was imperative. Through these interviews, he was able to describe in detail the lives of many of the elderly who had survived the heat as well as the probable causes for that. The elderly, especially isolated men and those who outlive their friends or become homebound and ill, often suffer from social deprivation and role displacement in later years. Overwhelmed with pressing anxieties about making ends meet, avoiding proximate dangers (burglaries, violence), and maintaining liveliness in unhealthy environments, they are likely to express stress in their relationships and pull away from very important social ties.

Chapter 2 is entitled "Race, Place, and Vulnerability", and examines the conditions of specific areas that either help or hinder the residents in terms of deprivation and isolation. To do this, Klinenberg did a case study involving two communities with similar risk factors, but very different mortality rates. This sixth month long study included the predominantly African American neighborhood of North Lawndale, which experienced the highest death rates, and the Latino neighborhood of Little Village that experienced the lowest. This chapter also focuses on the increasing spatial concentration and social separation of the affluent and the impoverished who cluster in certain parts of the city. While the affluent benefit from their exclusive environment, the poor experience more crime, disease, violence, and isolation.

Chapter 3, "The State of Disaster" discusses how government agencies have actually done little to help the most vulnerable people in times of need, such as the heat wave emergency. This is evident in the city's failure to implement its own heat emergency plan until after hundreds had already died. Klinenberg points out the work of, and does interviews with, the police department, fire department, and paramedics. He studies the compatibility between these city government services and the human abilities and social resources of the poor elderly residents.

"Governing by Public Relations" is the title of chapter 4, which shows the how city officials often resolve criticisms towards...
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