Chicago Heat Wave, 1995

The 1995 Chicago Heat wave led to approximately 750 heat-related deaths over a period of five days. The temperatures soared to record highs in July with the hottest weather occurring from July 12 to July 16.

The high of 106 degrees on July 13 was the second warmest July temperature since record keeping began at Midway International Airport in 1928.

Most of the heat wave victims were the elderly poor in the heart of the city, who either had no working air conditioning or could not afford to turn it on. Many older citizens were also hesitant to open windows and doors at night for fear of crime. Elderly women, who may have been more socially engaged, were less vulnerable than elderly men. By contrast, during the heat waves of the 30’s, many residents slept outside in the parks or along the shore of Lake Michigan. (On a personal note, the author as a child remembers sleeping on the green center area of Garfield Boulevard (5500 South). Thousands of people would sleep out on hot nights and it was very safe.

Because of the nature of the disaster, and the slow response of authorities to recognize it, no official “Death toll” had been determined. However, figures show that 739 people died in that particular week above the weekly average. Further analysis showed that blacks were more likely to die than whites, and that Hispanics had an unusually low death rate due to heat.

By July 15th, Commonwealth Edison set a new record for generating electricity, despite heat-related equipment failures that knocked out more than 200 transformers causing 18,000 customers to lose power.

Perhaps the most notorious city tragedy was the Great Chicago Fire in 1871, which claimed 250 lives. But that pales in comparison to this five-day heat wave: As of Saturday, July 15th, the death toll was already 664 lives. That’s easily double the number of people killed in the Oklahoma City bombing and more than seven times the fatalities in the 1994 Los Angeles earthquake.