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Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago 1st Edition

37 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0226443218
ISBN-10: 0226443213
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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.


“By the end of Heat Wave, Klinenberg has traced the lines of culpability in dozens of directions, drawing a dense and subtle portrait of exactly what happened during that week in July.”
(Malcolm Gladwell New Yorker)

“A trenchant, multilayered and well-written social autopsy of disaster. . . . God is in the details, though, and Klinenberg painstakingly lays out for us both the structural and more proximate policies that led to the disastrous Chicago mortality figures of July 1995.”
(Micaela di Leonardo Nation)

“Remarkable . . . Klinenberg’s immediate aim is to explain the heat wave’s unprecedented death toll, and he does so with chilling precision. But his ultimate achievement is far more significant. In exploring what made Chicago so vulnerable to disaster in 1995, Klinenberg provides a riveting account of the changes that reshaped urban America during the 1990s and, indeed, throughout the postwar era.”
(Jim McNeill American Prospect)

“A damning indictment of the ‘malign neglect’ with which the old, frail and poor and isolated are treated in Chicago.”
(John Adams Times Higher Education)

“In a typical year more Americans die in heat waves than in all other natural calamities combined. Yet they hardly generate the kind of buzz that hurricanes, earthquakes, tornadoes, or wildfires do. In the compelling, sobering, and exhaustively researched Heat Wave, Eric Klinenberg suggests a plausible reason.”
(Diego Ribadeneira Boston Globe)

Heat Wave is not so much a book about weather, as it is about the calamitous consequences of forgetting our fellow citizens. . . . A provocative, fascinating book, one that applies to much more than weather disasters.”
(Neil Steinberg Chicago Sun-Times)

“Revealing and provocative.”
(Tom Vanderbilt London Review of Books)

“Trenchant and persuasive. . . . What makes Heat Wave such an essential book at this moment in American politics is that, using the 1995 heat wave as his paradigm, Klinenberg has written a forceful account of what it means to be poor, old, sick and alone in the era of American entrepreneurial government. . . . It’s hard to put down Heat Wave without believing you’ve just read a tale of slow murder by public policy.”
(Charles Taylor

“Klinenberg creates a compelling sociological history that is in critical and productive conversation with current cultural analyses of catastrophe and contemporary urban sociologies of race, class, and marginality.”
(John L. Jackson American Journal of Sociology)

“Once in a while it is said, ‘Someone will have to write a book about this.’ Heat Wave . . . is that book on urban catastrophes. Klinenberg has meticulously documented a great tragedy in recent Chicago History. He has written it in a manner which allows scholars, activists, community planners and policy-makers to draw lessons, so that it may never happen again.”
(Douglas C. Gills Urban Studies)

“This masterful study of the intersection of the political and the ecological reveals just how important it is that sociologists look not just a t trends or patterns over time, but at specific events. . . . . . . . Heat Wave is a great book because it focuses its attention on a tear in the social fabric in order to explore more deeply  the normal-time weave, and to raise these critical questions about what might be the institutional forms and the cultural contents of a society that would rescue its citizens who live ‘normally’ in extremis.”
(Robin Wagner-Pacifici Social Forces)

“A riveting account . . . that delves into the processes leading to social isolation, the social and built ecology of urban neighborhoods, and the failure of city, state, and federal governments to prevent or respond to a public health crisis. . . . Heat Wave is well worth a read regardless of one’s interest in heat waves or public health. . . . It is well-suited for required reading in public health and social science courses and for fascinating armchair reading.”
(Karen E. Smoyer Tomic JAMA)

“Relying on ethnographic fieldwork, spatial and statistical analysis, in-depth interviewing, and archival research, Klinenberg’s book is a very accomplished sociological case study, imaginatively conceived, tenaciously researched, and . . . strikingly innovative. The work illuminates the contemporary problems of aging, popery, and community neglect with great skill and sensitivity. In the process, Heat Wave offers an exemplary demonstration of how an intensive, multilayered analytical focus on an extreme case or event can yield fresh insight into the social structures, ecologies, and policies that produce everyday inequity and hardship.”
(William Sites Social Service Review)

“It is riveting. It is intellectually exciting. If it is not pathbreaking for the study of political communication, it is nonetheless destined to be a recurrent point of reference and an excellent choice for classroom use. . . . This is a stunningly good book, a rare work with broad vision, theoretical savvy, and prodigious leg work in government bureaus, city news rooms, and tough neighborhoods. . . . Klinenberg touched every base, took no shortcuts, and has produced a sociological masterpiece.”
(Michael Schudson Political Communication)

Heat Wave is an exquisitely written, impeccably researched work, and one could hardly imagine how anyone could do more in a single effort to reveal the deadly social fractures of the cities we live in. In this brilliant book, Klinenberg makes visible the ongoing disaster of poverty and isolation that is silently unraveling in some of the most affluent cities in North America.”
(Joe Hermer Canadian Journal of Urban Research)

“The book should be required reading for all public officials.”

Best Book in Sociology and Anthropology
(Association of American Publishers’ Professional/Scholarly Division)

Mirra Komarovsky Book Award
(Eastern Sociological Society)

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
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (37 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #288,661 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

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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21 of 22 people found the following review helpful By Rob 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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