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This Much I Know: Eric Klineberg, author of ‘Heat Wave’

Eric Klinenberg is sociologist author “HeWave” definitive book Chicago’s 1995 hewave disaster thhe credits with killing 739 people.

Eric Klinenberg is a sociologist and author of “Heat Wave,” the definitive book on Chicago’s 1995 heat wave disaster that he credits with killing 739 people.

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Updated: July 22, 2011 5:06PM

We can’t get it into our heads that heat waves are truly, seriously dangerous.

Every year you hear heat waves kill more people than all natural disasters combined … and every fall we forget that. People remain incredulous.

Heat waves have a public relations problem. They are invisible. They’re not like tornados, hurricanes and earthquakes. There’s no big property damage, no reconstruction of the city. So people don’t pay attention to them.

Another reason people forget about how dangerous heat waves are is that the people they tend to kill are people who we work hard not to think about — poor people, old people, people who live alone.

The two most deadly American natural disasters of recent history were the heat wave and Hurricane Katrina. Katrina became a world historic reference point and the heat wave was a non-event. The death tolls of the Chicago heat wave of 1995 was nearly half of Hurricane Katrina. One reason the 1995 heat wave has not been more memorable is it caused no property damage and produced little spectacular imagery.

For most of us heat waves are easy to escape. Hit the button on the air conditioning. The poor and the old don’t always have access to that.

In 1995, it wasn’t living in a poor neighborhood that made you vulnerable. It was living in a poor neighborhood that was depopulated and lost commercial life. Living in neighborhoods that don’t have places to draw people out of homes and into the companionship of neighbors and into air conditioning.

Mayor Daley was so successful generating questions about whether the heat wave disaster was “really real.” The city was fighting a PR battle ... and I talked to people in city government who said that hampered the city from doing all the things they could do.

It’s amazing the Daley administration could make so many mistakes — the heat wave killed twice as many people as the Great Chicago Fire — and survive without any political repercussions.

It takes about 48 hours of uninterrupted heat for weather to be truly dangerous. The conditions are very dangerous right now. I wouldn’t be surprised if by the end of the day there are heat deaths in Chicago.

The city is doing a better job taking heat waves much more seriously than 1995. Chicago is really in the spotlight. The disaster of 1995 is of real local significance and people don’t want it to happen again. They’re checking on family and neighbors and friends who are vulnerable. There would be a huge political fallout if it happens again.

I got a phone call today ... it was the first time I was contacted by a commissioner of Chicago on how to do something better.

We’ll see how the new guys handle things.

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