What Heat Waves Tell Us

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Governor Schwarzenegger has activated California’s heat emergency plan and instructed state officials to coordinate on how to mitigate the effects of the heat wave. Add in pollution and the heat from the wildfires, and Californians have a lot more to fear from the sun than from earthquakes. It could get ugly.

Likely, California won’t be the only state feeling the heat this summer, and it’s reasonable to dread that the poor, shut-in elderly will bear the brunt of the damage. Especially the black poor, shut-in elderly, though it’s a hellish situation for anyone who can’t afford to stay cool, or doesn’t have loved ones to check in on them.

Back in 1995, Chicago’s devastating heat wave brought home the myriad ripple effects of black inner city decline. Sociologist Richard Klinenberg, appalled by the rate at which the elderly black died suffering alone in the heat, wrote a book calledHeat Wave which has haunted me ever since:

The ethnic and racial differences in mortality are also significant for what they can teach us about urban life. The actual death tolls for African Americans and whites were almost identical, but those numbers are misleading. There are far more elderly whites than elderly African Americans in Chicago, and when the Chicago Public Health Department considered the age differences, they found that the black/white mortality ratio was 1.5 to 1.

Another surprising fact that emerged is that Latinos, who represent about 25 percent of the city population and are disproportionately poor and sick, accounted for only 2 percent of the heat-related deaths. I wrote Heat Wave to make sense of these numbers—to show, for instance, why the Latino Little Village neighborhood had a much lower death rate than African American North Lawndale. Many Chicagoans attributed the disparate death patterns to the ethnic differences among blacks, Latinos, and whites—and local experts made much of the purported Latino “family values.” But there’s a social and spatial context that makes close family ties possible. Chicago’s Latinos tend to live in neighborhoods with high population density, busy commercial life in the streets, and vibrant public spaces. Most of the African American neighborhoods with high heat wave death rates had been abandoned—by employers, stores, and residents—in recent decades. The social ecology of abandonment, dispersion, and decay makes systems of social support exceedingly difficult to sustain.

Bottom line: Poor and working-class Hispanics living in the community immediately adjacent to a demographically similar black community largely survived the heat wave, while their black neighbors died mere blocks away. It’s a grim, grim book illuminating an even grimmer reality. Hispanics took care of their own while poor old folks died sweltering in their apartments, too poor to own air conditioners and too afraid to go outside or, god forbid, open a window in hopes of a cool breeze. Worst of all, many were so forgotten they weren’t found for weeks after the heat wave broke.

There’s not much a governor can do about this. It takes a village.

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