Weather Updates

Unlike Daley, Mayor Emanuel behind the scenes when heat soars

Mayor Rahm Emanuel (left) former Mayor Richard M. Daley. | Sun-Times

Mayor Rahm Emanuel (left) and former Mayor Richard M. Daley. | Sun-Times

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Updated: July 29, 2012 4:48PM

Chicago’s weather seems to be getting more extreme.

The city’s reaction under Mayor Rahm Emanuel is getting less extreme.

Burned by the killer heat wave of 1995, former Mayor Richard M. Daley made a public show of warning Chicagoans whenever temperatures soared or plunged.

Daley held notoriously long news conferences at the city’s Office of Emergency Management and Communications to outline the city’s emergency response.

City department heads and Commonwealth Edison executives lined up behind the mayor in the bureaucratic equivalent of a casting call for the movie, “The Ten Commandments.”

In 1995, Daley’s initial reaction to the record heat was flippant. His administration was overwhelmed. He was not about to under-react again.

Emanuel can best be described as the anti-Daley.

When the temperature rises, Emanuel turns up the heat on his department heads, but stays behind-the-scenes while they swing into action.

Chicago still sends out extreme weather text messages and voice-mail alerts, makes well-being checks to vulnerable elderly residents and opens cooling centers and cooling buses when temperatures rise above a certain level. But, no longer does the mayor himself hold news conferences to trumpet the city’s extreme weather response. Press releases often suffice. If a news conference is needed, the mayor’s underlings hold forth.

On Wednesday, the city held a 911 Center press conference to talk about the heat. But the mayor was not there.

Why the dramatic difference in political response to a problem that appears to be getting worse — not better?

“1995 was a pretty devastating experience for everybody in the city. It was horrible. Mayor Daley lived through a very different experience than Rahm Emanuel and, to Daley’s credit, the city learned a lot of lessons from what went wrong in 1995,” said a top mayoral aide, who asked to remain anonymous.

“This mayor is fortunate enough to have inherited a city that’s prepared. We deal with heat, rain, snow—whatever the season is. It’s part of what we do every single day. His gut instinct is not to run out and scare people. He has 100 percent confidence that the front-line responders are doing their jobs. There’s no need to second-guess them.”

Gary Schenkel, executive director of the city’s Office of Emergency Management and Communications, noted that Emanuel directed the city to update its emergency weather operations plan in collaboration with Cook County and a host of other government agencies.

“We took everybody’s input and incorporated their activities and capabilities into one over-arching plan. We’ve worked out way to complement, rather than contradict each other. Knowing the capability of each agency, it gives us the ability to reach out to that agency when we need those resources and address problems we may encounter,” Schenkel said.

“We are more prepared now than we’ve been in a long time for a weather emergency, natural or man-made disaster because of the efforts we’ve all put in together and the relationships we’ve built up over the last year.”

Pressed to describe how that collaboration translates into a better emergency response, Schenkel said, “Say there’s a thunderstorm where we have multiple power lines down and multiple agencies involved. Once we were able to coordinate those efforts, we were able to use resources from Commonweath Edison, the Chicago Fire Department and support and assistance from Cook County in addressing downed power lines and cleaning debris.”

Asked Wednesday about the extreme heat, Emanuel said he’s on top of it, even though he’s not making a public show of it.

“I talked to Gary Schenkel over at OEMC yesterday. He and I e-mailed last night. My staff is regularly checking with both him and all affected parties, making sure that seniors most importantly are checked in on. They know where available city facilities are,”” the mayor said.

Emanuel noted that he ordered a post-mortem after the Blizzard of 2011 fiasco that shut down Lake Shore Drive to determine what was right and wrong about the city’s response to weather emergencies.

“I said then…the new normal is the abnormal when it comes to weather,”” he said. “”Because we had that review, I’m confident ... about the city’s response.”

The July, 1995, heat wave that saw the heat index rise to 125 degrees at Midway Airport killed roughly 750 Chicagoans.

Many of the victims were elderly residents trapped in buildings without air conditioning or too poor to turn it on. Some of the victims were afraid to open their windows and doors at night for fear of criminals who preyed upon their inner-city neighborhoods.

The emergency medical system was so overwhelmed, some patients were transported to hospitals in fire trucks when the city ran out of ambulances. There were so many dead, the Cook County medical examiner’s office was forced to use nine refrigerated trucks to store the bodies.

Chicago did open five cooling centers during the heat wave. But they were under-used, in part, because City Hall waited until the fifth and final day of the crisis to warn residents of the heat emergency.

When then-Cook County Medical Examiner Edmund Donoghue dared to rule hundreds of deaths heat-related, he got a public argument from a defiant and defensive Mayor Daley.

“It’s hot. But let’s not blow it out of proportion,” Daley said at the time.

“Every day people die of natural causes. You cannot claim that everybody who has died in the last eight or nine days dies of heat. Then, everybody in the summer that dies will die of heat.”

Schenkel was asked why his boss doesn’t feel the need to duplicate the extreme-weather news conferences that became Daley’s response to the 1995 crisis.

“Mayor Emanuel was very selective when he recruited his commissioners. He found people with a lot of expertise,” Schenkel said.

“I call it, ‘leaders intent.’ We get the direction early on where he would like to see agencies go, and he trusts us to put together those plans and meet those expectations.”

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