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The [Wednesday] Papers

In 2002, sociologist Eric Klinenberg published a remarkable book about the 1995 Chicago heat wave that claimed more than 700 lives - a disaster that would have cost many mayors their job but hardly touched Richard M. Daley, despite what we now know about his mismanagement of the crisis.

The deep, layered reporting and social analysis of Klinenberg's Heat Wave exposed a stubborn, wrong-headed, uncompassionate mayor whose failure to grasp the situation undoubtedly added to the death toll, abetted by a gullible and shallow media.

Perhaps that's why, to this day, Klinenberg's book gets short shrift in Chicago, when in fact it is a masterpiece belonging among the top Chicago books of all time - even if Tribune "literary editor" Elizabeth Taylor, who edits the paper's book review, once told me she just didn't think the book was that big of a deal.

It is.

After all, Klinenberg documented a mayor and City Hall staff more concerned with public relations than with the bodies piling up at the morgue that summer, and a media that failed as well to grasp the tragedy as it unfolded, preferring to put its faith in the mayor and the limited imaginations of its editors and producers in turning out the same hoary clichés as stories that it does every year when it gets hot.

I thought of Klinenberg's book this morning when I saw what seems to be the first and only reference to Heat Wave in the local press over this last week of deadly temperatures. Of course, the reference got it all wrong.

"'[M]any people said the [1995] deaths happened because of a poor response by the city and the lack of a social network in certain areas,' said [Kathleen] Cagney, an assistant professor of health studies at U. of C.," the Sun-Times reports today in "Study Of '95 Heat: More Deaths Near Liquor Stores."

"[Researchers] found that wasn't the case," the paper says, "largely because the heat wave happened too quickly for family, friends and neighbors to realize they should be checking on the elderly."

I'm not so sure about that, but I do know that the findings of Cagney and her colleagues - that neighborhoods peppered with liquor stores, currency exchanges and bars experienced more heat deaths than those with "thriving commercial districts" offering more comfortable places for residents to get out of the heat - is hardly at odds with what Klinenberg found, and in fact echoes his central conclusion about the heat wave as a sociological event.

To ignore the city's response to the crisis as a factor in its gravity, however, is folly.

"While the city neglected to follow its own guidelines for coordinating an emergency public health reaction to the dangerous heat, the administration accomplished a textbook public relations campaign to deny the severity of the crisis, deflect responsibility for the public health breakdown, and defend the city's response to the disaster," Klinenberg wrote in the chapter titled "Governing By Public Relations."

"Local journalists reported that Daley 'went into a political damage-control mode' out of concern that the soaring mortality rates would create a public impression that the city was unprepared for the situation. 'Already,' Health Commissioner Sheila Lyne recalled, 'the press wanted to know what we were doing and why it happened.' So the mayor and the cabinet planned their rhetorical response.

"Daley's public relations team organized two media events for the day. First, the political entourage would visit a supermarket on the North Side where power failures had ruined food supplies and announce the mayor's plans to conduct public hearings on Commonwealth Edison's electrical failures. The move, aides calculated, would focus attention on the utilities company and galvanize citizens who were already angry about their loss of power. Second, officials would hold a news conference at one of the five city senior centers, where they would dismiss any charges that the city had failed to organize a strong response and advise citizens on how to survive the heat.

"The conference would also give Daley a chance to repair whatever damage he had done the previous Friday, when he had told reporters not to make too much out of the situation. 'It's hot,' the mayor acknowledged as the city registered its first heat-related deaths. 'It's very hot, but let's not blow it out of proportion . . . yes we go to extremes in Chicago. And that's why people like Chicago. We go to extremes."

Yes. Yes we do.

Klinenberg paints a portrait of a mayor and a City Hall team preoccupied with the public relations of the crisis, rather than the crisis itself.

For example, Daley and his team spent a lot of time and energy trying to refute Cook County Medical Examiner Edmund Donoghue's announcement that heat-related deaths were mounting in the hundreds.

"Every day," Daley told the media, "people die of natural causes. You cannot claim that everybody who had died in the last eight or nine days dies of heat. Then everybody in the summer that dies will die of heat."

Klinenberg reported that a high-ranking city official remembered that "the mayor was nuts with Donoghue. He wanted him to shut up."

Donoghue was right, of course. And the deaths weren't merely, as some ascertained, old people who would have died soon anyway. They were genuine heat wave deaths, something Daley didn't seem able to face.

"The same official recounted the meeting at which the Mayor's Office recognized the legitimacy of the heat wave death figures reported by the Medical Examiner's Office," Klinenberg wrote.

"We were having a meeting with the [Centers for Disease Control] group that came down to do a case-control study, and soon after we started, the Mayor's Office sent a lawyer over to protect the mayor's position. The guy was in a difficult situation. Either he had to support the mayor's line, which was patently false, or he had to quit his job. Of course, the Mayor's Office was already furious about the heat-related death reports, and when I told him that the mortality was actually much higher he flipped . . . By the time I returned to the Health Department and went to see the commissioner, she had already received a call from the Mayor's Office with the instruction that no one was to see those numbers. We weren't allowed to say anything."

This was par for the course, and with dreadful consequences.

"During the crisis, codes of silence and the multiple forms of political denial undertaken by public officials prevented city agencies from activating emergency programs to address problems requiring rapid intervention," Klinenberg wrote. "Would the Fire Department have issued a mutual aid boxed alarm system alert and called in more paramedics and firefighters if City Hall had sounded emergency warnings rather than muted the mortality reports? Would the Police Department have activated its Senior Units and Neighborhood Relations programs if the city had worked to coordinate an interagency response? Would the Health Department have issued more aggressive calls for help if the Office of the Mayor had not demanded that the agency repress its estimated death figures? City employees in each of these agencies believe that the answer to these questions is yes."

That was 1995, and the city has obviously learned some lessons. But the mayor has never acknowledged the monumental mistakes that those lessons are derived from - and the media has never held him to account (nor detailed just which lessons we're talking about).

In fact, the mayor's spinning continues to this day. He is still apparently retailing the notion that relatives and neighbors of victims were solely to blame in 1995. In the Sun-Times today, Fran Spielman, while comparing ComEd's performance this summer to the 1999 Loop power outage, quotes ComEd CEO Frank Clark saying, "And, as the mayor said, families are calling their loved ones," and then writes, "unlike what happened in 1995."

As Klinenberg exhaustively showed, that isn't at all what happened in 1995.

Perhaps the City Hall press corps has been too busy these last four years to read Heat Wave, because if they did, they would be (or ought to be) furious with the way they were manipulated. They might also gain a different perception of the mayor, and might start talking about a credibility gap. Perhaps they would feel differently as well when the mayor, for example, gives dramatic performances like the one he gave in the wake of the Burge report, saying he would never have allowed torture to happen under his watch as Cook County State's Attorney, despite the obvious fact that it did.

If you read Heat Wave, you can see exactly how Daley could have denied, deflected, ignored and spun torture allegations that were hardly a secret.

And if Spielman read the book, we might not so readily get stories like hers today about the "well-trained army" of City Hall and ComEd working "hand-in-glove" under their "field general," Cortez Trotter, the city's chief emergency officer. Or incredulous boasts of the superiority of Chicago's emergency response compared to that of New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina. "In New Orleans, dozens of school buses sat idle underwater while residents of impoverished neighborhoods cried out for help on rooftops of flooded homes," Spielman writes. "In Chicago, 40 CTA buses were used as cooling centers and to transport residents."

Instead of typing up a City Hall press release, Spielman and her colleagues might stop to think, Hey, wait a minute. They're using CTA buses as cooling centers?

If you haven't read Heat Wave, I recommend you do so. While the book is a sociological examination of the heat wave far broader than just the performance of City Hall, it is also the among the best explanations of how this administration - and the Chicago media - operates. It's the best kind of summer reading for the beach - or aboard a CTA bus.

The Beachwood Tip Line: Cooling year-round.



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Posted on August 2, 2006


MUSIC - The Week In Chicago Rock.
TV - Cricket vs. Brexit.
POLITICS - Trailer: Swing District.
SPORTS - Ryan Pace's Narratives Are Killing Us.

BOOKS - Chicago For Dummies.

PEOPLE PLACES & THINGS - The Sears Motor Buggy.


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