Slate‘s Eric Klinenberg writes about the worst U.S. natural disaster of the 1990’s, at least in terms of the loss of life. It wasn’t the Northridge quake or Hurricane Andrew. It was the heatwave that hit Chicago in July of 1995, killing 739 people.
If this doesn’t ring a bell, welcome to flyover country. Klinenberg’s article discusses other reasons for the general lack of attention paid to heatwave deaths.
The heatwave’s death toll wasn’t immediately obvious. Heat death is slow, and its victims usually live alone, because otherwise someone would have saved them. When the Medical Examiner’s office announced the disaster, City Hall politicians tried to play it down, claiming that Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Edmund R. Donaghue was mistaken or trying to get publicity. A more thorough investigation showed that the doctors were right. In fact, the ME‘s estimate had been conservative.
The politicians should have known better: Many years earlier, Dr. Donaghue’s office had been the first to detect the Tylenol poisonings.