How the deadly 1995 Chicago heat wave compares to the COVID-19 pandemic

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CHICAGO — Twenty-five years ago this July, Chicago survived its worst natural disaster in history. Over 700 people died when a heat wave swept through the city.

How does that disaster compare to what Chicago and the state is bracing for today? 

WGN’s Julie Unruh checked in with Chicago’s chief medical examiner, Dr. Edmund Donohogue, from 1995. That summer he was dealing with an unknown: today it’s a virus, back then it was the heat. 

In 1995, no one knew that temperatures of 106, that felt more like 125, could end in a large number of deaths. They also didn’t know when the deaths would stop.

Today, the makeshift refrigerated morgue is perhaps the result of hard lessons from that time. 

During the 1995 heat wave, the Cook County Medical Examiner’s Office was typically processing 17 cases a day. Suddenly the heat spiked nd the number of deaths soared to 100 or more a day. The system was overwhelmed and the bodies stacked up.

La Grou trucks came to the rescue. The city poached 10 refrigerated trucks from Taste of Chicago to house about 300 corpses coming in at alarming rates.

In the end, the death toll was 739. The images were seared in the memories of those who survived it. Then, it was epidemic levels. The spread of COVID-19 is a pandemic.

(sot from today: 21:32 “it was certainly epidemic levels.”)

“As bad as the 1995 heat wave was, this disaster is worse,” Donoghue said.

He said it’s because people can’t escape the virus in the way survivors escaped the heat decades ago.

“Not only that, the people that end up getting involved can end up dead,” Donoghue said.

Donoghue’s talking about the nation’s healthcare workers. Cook County may have learned a harsh lesson 25 years ago. So today, the county has taken over a refrigerated warehouse to hold about 2,000 bodies during the pandemic, if needed. It’s five miles away from the morgue.

Something else that is different now versus then — social distancing in 2020 changes even how we deal with the dead.

“Many people are going to want to put off claiming the body and leave it with the medical examiner until a funeral can be held,” he said.

He said, in the worst case scenario, if bodies stack up for too long, cremation could be required to save space. He said people are also worried about the infectiousness of the bodies. 

Even scientists are still learning along the way. The good news in all of this is that bodies kept at 38 degrees can be preserved for months, Donoghue said. Hopefully that is enough time for families to get a plan to pay their respects when COVID-19 is less of a threat. 

In 1995, experts, even the mayor, didn’t know the deadly effects of heat. He was also in denial that the heat could be to blame. Donoghue said that in 2020, we failed to see how quickly COVID-19 can spread.

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