July 26, 2011 The Cook County Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management (DHSEM) has reported that last week’s heat wave in the Chicago area has now claimed 15 lives ranging in age from 18 to 87. The medical examiner’s office says the youngest victim, 18-year-old Cesar Rodriguez collapsed while outside in the heat and later died at a hospital.
Last Week, the National Weather Service reported that temperatures reached 100 degrees at Northerly Island in Chicago, with a heat index of 112. Temperatures hit 100 back to back on Wednesday and Thursday at Midway Airport. The last time that happened was 16 years ago during the deadly 1995 heat wave. The area’s highest heat index recorded was 114 in the Kankakee area.
Chicago meteorologist Tom Skilling said consecutive days of 100 degree temperatures are rare. According to the city’s 83-year weather record at Midway, back-to-back 100’s have occurred in only 11 of the past 83 years. In fact, the last time Chicago had a 100 degrees day was in 2005.
On Friday, storms ripped through the Chicago area providing some relief from the heat but triggering flash flood warnings and power outages. Winds gusts of 50 mph were reported at Midway and on the north side of Chicago. The storm also knocked out power for tens of thousands of ComEd customers. Although highway lanes in the Chicago area have been closed before, Illinois Department of Transportation spokesman Guy Tridgell said there had been “nothing this widespread in quite some time.” Tridgell said:
“Virtually every part of the system was touched, it was literally a case of too much water in a short time period for the storm sewers to handle.”
In July of 1995, another Chicago heat wave caused an unprecidented 733 deaths in Cook County, prompting several policy changes as to how the city handles extreme heat. The most notable improvements have been the city’s opening of cooling centers and door to door well being checks for the handicapped and the elderly.
With no plan in place for heat related deaths, refrigerated semi-trailers were set up at the Cook County medical examiner’s office to accommodate the hundreds of bodies that ambulances brought in. In addition to the scorching temperatures, the high humidity made it difficult to sweat and cool off, and by nights that seemed almost as hot as the days. Chicago residents opened an estimated 3,000 fire hydrants, which lead to record water use.
In September 1995, an epidemiologic study by the Chicago Board of Health reported that the 733 official deaths in the city were caused by the extreme heat. The varying numbers depended on how deaths were counted, while victims of other natural disasters such as tornadoes or hurricanes, those killed by the heat often are not recognized as victims of the weather. Four years later, in July of 1999 another Chicago heat wave resulted in more than 80 deaths.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) conducted a Natural Disaster Survey Report in 1996. The recommendations included that the National Weather Service focus preparedness efforts towards people who are most vulnerable to the dangers of heat. Among the most susceptible are the isolated elderly living in urban areas. In large cities such as Chicago, there are often many residential buildings constructed of materials such as brick that can trap hot air at dangerous levels.
In addition, the NOAA report recommended that emergency response organizations at the federal, state and local levels recognize severe heat waves as potential natural disasters, and that areas at risk should be prompted to develop emergency response plans for severe heat waves.
The July 2011 heat wave evidences areas in which preparedness efforts need improvement. Two examples where extreme temperatures caused delays were CTA trains and ComEd power outages. On Thursday, CTA officials advised riders there would be significant delays on the Red Line due to track problems near the Chinatown station caused by excessive heat. On Wednesday, heat related issues left about 2,000 Lakeview residents without electricity for approximately two hours.