There are terrible stories emerging from India, suffering an intense heatwave – such as this one from Vice News: Poor people are most affected as hundreds die in Indian heatwave. The story links to a study reporting an increase in the number of urban heatwaves over the period 1970-2012; and now more than half of us live in cities.
Reading these reminded me of Eric Klinenberg’s amazing 2002 book Heatwave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago. The first warning of impending heatwave was broadcast on Wednesday 12 July 1995; the next day the temperature soared to 106F and the ‘heat index’ to 126F. Roads buckled, trains derailed, city workers sprayed the bridges with water to maintain the structures. People opened fire hydrants and water pressure around the city fell. “The body’s defenses can only take about 48 hours of uninterrupted exposure to such heat before they break down,” Klinenberg writes in the opening chapter. So from the Friday many people started falling ill. The heatwave lasted until 20 July. There were so many deaths (over 700) that the city had to store bodies in refrigerated trucks in the parking lot of the morgue.
Of course, extreme weather is a natural disaster, but its incidence is uneven because of social, economic and cultural structures. Klinenberg studied the ‘excess’ (i.e. above normal for the place and season) mortality rate in different parts of the city. Not surprisingly, poor people suffered the highest ‘excess death’ rate. The eye-opening thing about the research, though, is that some low income groups had a far worse experience than others. Matching districts for employment rates and average incomes, there was a higher death rate among African-American than among Hispanic people. Because the city authorities responded too slowly, because public services were poorly equipped, vulnerable people such as the elderly and those living alone had only their families and neighbours to rely on, and those social structures were at the time more intact among the recent Hispanic immigrants. Of the 700 who died over those few days, 41 ended up unclaimed by any relatives.
“This book has shown that extreme exogenous forces such as climate have become so disastrous partly because the emerging isolation and privatization, the extreme social and economic inequalities, and the concentrated zones of affluence and poverty in contemporary cities create hazards for vulnerable residents in all seasons,” he writes. None of which has changed anywhere in the 12 years since the book was published. He identifies as causes for concern the increase in the number of people living alone, growing spatial inequality separating social groups, the huge social distance between city governments and the people they serve, and the fact that we have government by PR with few mechanisms for holding the authorities to account on results.
The book ends with a plea to understand the consequences of natural disasters as societal events. That lesson is hardly ever put into practice, unfortunately.