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Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago Hardcover – July 12, 2002

ISBN-13: 978-0226443218 ISBN-10: 0226443213 Edition: 1st

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press; 1 edition (July 12, 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0226443213
  • ISBN-13: 978-0226443218
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 1.1 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (32 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,136,362 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From The New England Journal of Medicine

Like motorists who slow down to stare at the aftermath of car crashes, most people are fascinated by meteorologic disasters. The perils of weathering a hurricane, a tsunami's destruction of property, and the human drama of a flood all make for riveting tales of struggle and survival. Yet one kind of weather-related catastrophe -- a deadly wave of heat and humidity -- seems not to get nearly the notice given the others, despite the fact that it kills more than all the other kinds combined. Why heat waves are such a quiet menace and how social conditions contributed to more than 700 deaths during a week-long wave of unprecedented heat and humidity in Chicago in 1995 are the focus of Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago, written by sociologist Eric Klinenberg. The term "social isolation" is usually applied to those living in remote locations, but Klinenberg demonstrates that this unfortunate condition also applies to thousands of people (primarily senior citizens) in our nation's largest cities. And so it was in 1995. Thousands of Chicago's elderly lived alone (many of them in or near poverty), isolated in many ways and by many factors. When the record-breaking heat and humidity arrived and stayed, these men and women started dying, one at a time and quietly, behind closed, locked doors. The immediate reasons were apparent. Many seniors did not have air conditioning in their houses or apartments. Of those who did have air conditioning, many chose not to use it, fearing utility bills that they could not afford to pay. Fear of crime kept others from leaving their homes to use free neighborhood "cooling centers." Still other elderly Chicagoans knew, from a physiological standpoint, that they were hot but were simply unaware that they were in danger. Klinenberg shows in detail how the tragedy was compounded by many factors and interests, including a public health and medical establishment that did not anticipate the magnitude of the looming danger and local news media that treated the severe heat and humidity as little more than a novel topic for lighthearted feature stories. The author also examines key sociological factors relating to the elderly, including the perils of "aging in place" while the surrounding environment changes; the idealization and valuing of personal independence among seniors; and differences between men and women in the establishment of friendships and other interpersonal connections. Heat Wave is a fascinating book, in part because the social conditions that led to Chicago's 1995 tragedy still exist, for the most part, throughout our nation and its aging population. People are still at risk. The book is not without its flaws. Klinenberg strays from sociological analysis and into a politicized attack when he examines the 1995 response of Mayor Richard M. Daley and his administration. He makes far too much of the mayor's brief questioning of exactly what constitutes a "heat-related death" -- a question, I might add, that most of us had at the time. The author erroneously claims that the response of the Daley administration was driven more by public-relations damage control than by a desire to understand the tragedy and prevent further deaths and that a report issued by the Mayor's Commission on Extreme Weather Conditions was little more than "spin," when it was in fact the product of careful deliberation by leading figures in public health, medicine, gerontology, meteorology, and other fields. Indeed, the report laid the groundwork for Chicago's successful response to extreme weather, which was credited with saving hundreds of lives in the summer of 1999. The report has been widely requested by and circulated to public health planners throughout the nation. Other descriptions of the mayoral response are similarly off-base. As a deputy commissioner of the Health Department in 1995, I was there for every step of the action, in front of the cameras and microphones and around the table at meetings about emergency response. Klinenberg and his sources were not there. Klinenberg also puts considerable emphasis on racial disparities in the 1995 heat deaths. (The raw death totals indicate a rough parity between mortality rates in the black and white populations, but age-adjusted rates supplied by the author claim otherwise.) In his biography posted on the Web site of Northwestern University, where he teaches, Klinenberg notes his interest in the exploration of "race as a principle of vision, division, and domination." His focus on race is therefore understandable, but many do not see race as the risk factor that he claims it is. Its flaws aside, Heat Wave is a thought-provoking examination that challenges everyone in medicine and public health to look beyond our training to consider sociological conditions as risk factors. It issues a call for all segments of the population to reestablish those familial and social connections that we once seemed to have but now, all too often, do not. John Wilhelm, M.D., M.P.H.
Copyright © 2002 Massachusetts Medical Society. All rights reserved. The New England Journal of Medicine is a registered trademark of the MMS.


A forceful account of what it means to be poor, sick and alone in the era of American entrepreneurial government -- Charles Taylor, Salon.com

A provocative, fascinating book, one that applies to much more than weather disasters -- Chicago Sun-Times

A trenchant, multilayered and well-written social autopsy of disaster. -- Micaela di Leonardo, The Nation

Klinenberg draws the lines of culpability in dozens of directions, drawing a dense and subtle portrait of exactly what happened. -- Malcom Gladwell, The New Yorker

Revealing and provocative. -- London Review of Books

Customer Reviews

This is not a page turner, but it was never intended to be.
A. S. Gaumond
In Heat Wave, the author presents a compelling and complex portrait of a natural and social disaster.
Stuart R. Blythe
Very few journalists seemed willing or able to question why this had been allowed to happen.

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

38 of 40 people found the following review helpful By snowleopard on August 15, 2002
Format: Hardcover
Do you remember the heat wave in Chicago in 1995? The rail lines folded, electricity went out with rolling blackouts, some streets even buckled. The heat was over 100 degrees, rarely dipping below the 80's at night, and the humidity near 100%. But what most people don't remember is the horrific human death toll during that time. Over 700 people were killed in that heat wave that lasted nearly a week. But while the author looks deeply into the horror of this natural disaster, he mainly concentrates with precision on a few separate areas:
First, that heat waves kill more people annualy than all other types of natural disasters combined. Yet they receive little public attention mostly because they fail to generate the massive property damage and fantastic images produced by other weather-related disasters.
Second, most of the people that died were the elderly and poor, who died at home, with their windows often sealed or even nailed shut to prevent rampant crime in their areas. They had no air conditioning because they could not afford it, and little or any access to any social help because of their economic situation.
The author also looks into how the city of Chicago didn't come to grips with what had happened until the heat wave was well over, and that because of the social structure where the affluent have ample protection from such massive natural disasters, the elderly, infirm and poor will likely remain having none. And while dealing with the aftermath is much more costly, governments choose not to prepare for them with social programs which are often viewed as liberal pork or government waste.
A fascinating, well written book. It also contains many images, some of which appear is if taken from somewhere like Somalia. Eric Klinenberg is an sociology professor at Northwestern University.
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20 of 21 people found the following review helpful By R. Hardy HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWER on October 31, 2002
Format: Hardcover
What weather phenomenon kills the most people in America? Hurricanes? Tornadoes? Floods? Add those up and they will still not total the deaths attributed to the real killer: heat waves. The other phenomena yield good pictures, and that is one reason you don't hear much about heat deaths. But according to Eric Klinenberg, an assistant professor of sociology at New York University, there is another, more subtle reason. Victims of a heat wave "are primarily social outcasts - the elderly, the poor, and the isolated - from whom we customarily turn away." In _Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago_ (University of Chicago Press), Klinenberg has looked at the week-long heat wave of July 1995, which killed over 700 people. (Another comparison: the famous Chicago fire of 1871 killed about three hundred.) In Chicago, the heat hit up to 106 degrees, with a heat index over 120. Cars broke down in the streets, and bridges, rails, and roads buckled. Even with the windows open, brick homes could heat up to 120 degrees. The heat killed, but it did not just kill randomly. In clear, objective, but often biting pages, Klinenberg shows the patterns of urban life that brought death to certain regions and certain social groups.
One group was the elderly, clearly disproportionately killed by the heat. This might be attributed simply to their bodies having fewer physiological resources to protect them. Indeed, the government of Chicago tried to explain the deaths of elders this way; the heat only culled those who were going to be dying soon anyway. There is no medical evidence that this was the case; they simply were unconnected with society, and when they died alone in their rooms, it was long before absences were noticed.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful By Wendy on December 17, 2004
Format: Paperback
Countless movies and books have been based on natural disasters. After all, what is more powerful or awe-inspiring than an F5 tornado, blowing away heavy machinery as if it were nothing? Who isn't slightly alarmed at the possibility of a dormant volcano suddenly erupting and blanketing a sleep mountain town in lava? But sociologist Eric Klinenberg's Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago examines a quieter, less thought about natural disaster: heat waves. More specifically he examines the famous heat wave that hit Chicago in 1995, ultimately causing over 700 deaths. Furthermore, he examines how, in this day and age, so many people could be so profoundly affected by something that we would appear to have a handle on. The main aspect Klinenberg brings up is that of social isolation and how this pervasive trend could end up ultimately costing us our lives. But how does something like this happen, he wonders; how, with all of our modern technology and community outreach programs are people still "left behind." Furthermore, who are these people and how is it that our society puts certain people in these positions. With a comprehensive account of the event and the culmination of his own data, Klinenberg presents are very interesting view on social constructs in the context of natural, momentous events that are out of human control.
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11 of 13 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on December 23, 2002
Format: Hardcover
Dr. Klinenberg helps us as readers, citizens, and media-watchers reconceptualize heat waves as meterological disasters to social ones. He argues that such a reconceptualization allows us to understand that society is responsible and SHOULD be responsible for deaths. The brillant part of his book is that he does not pin the blame on any one person, one entity, or one organization. He shows how residents of neighborhoods, the spatial organizations of neighborhoods, politicians, local and national governments, the media, and even history play a role in why these deaths occurred and why the numbers were as significant as they are. Thus, we are all responsible!
The book looks at the phenomenon through more than just through the lens of statistics. His ethnographic work helps to look at the lives and qualitative nuances of the numbers. We hear the explanations and the critiques of the residents in the neighborhoods that were hit the hardest by the heat wave deaths. In addition, KLinenberg places their voices in conversation with reporters at the time, insiders of the Daly regime, public health officials, and even police officers. Therefore, we see the phenomenon from both the "official" and "unofficial" sources.
Anyone who is an activist, an academic, or a citizen of any American city should read this book. It will change your perspective on how urban areas really operate and SHOULD operate.
This book will make Dr. Klinenberg one of the foremost scholars of our time.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews

More About the Author

Eric Klinenberg is Professor of Sociology, Public Policy, and Media, Culture, and Communications at New York University, and editor of the journal Public Culture. His latest book, Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone, was published in February 2012 by the Penguin Press.

The press reports that Going Solo "is causing a sensation." Time Magazine featured it as the #1 Idea That is Changing Your Life in the March 12, 2012 cover story. Vanity Fair called it "trailblazing." Psychology Today called it "so important that it is likely to become both a popular read and a social science classic." The New Yorker argued that the book "suggests that our usual perceptions about life alone get things backward." And the Washington Post explained that "Going Solo is really about living better together--for all of us, single or not."

Klinenberg's first book, Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago, won six scholarly and literary prizes (and was a Favorite Book selection by the Chicago Tribune), and was praised as "a dense and subtle portrait" (Malcolm Gladwell, The New Yorker); "a remarkable, riveting account" (American Prospect); "intellectually exciting" (Amartya Sen); and a "trenchant, persuasive tale of slow murder by public policy" (Salon). A theatrical adaptation of Heat Wave premiered in Chicago in 2008, and Judith Helfand is directing a feature documentary based on the book.

Professor Klinenberg's second book, Fighting for Air: The Battle to Control America's Media, was called "politically passionate and intellectually serious," (Columbia Journalism Review), "a must-read for those who wonder what happened to good radio, accurate reporting and autonomous public interest" (Time Out New York), and "eye-opening ...required reading for conscientious citizens" (Kirkus). Since its publication, he has testified before the Federal Communications Commission and briefed the U.S. Congress on his findings.

In addition to his books and scholarly articles, Klinenberg has contributed to popular publications such as The New York Times Magazine, Rolling Stone, Time Magazine, Fortune, The London Review of Books, The Nation, The Washington Post, Mother Jones, The Guardian, Le Monde Diplomatique, Slate, and the radio program This American Life.

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Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago
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