Tuesday, September 03, 2002

What Makes a "Natural Disaster"?

I got bumped from Sunday to Tuesday but the column didn't have a hook for Labor Day weekend--other than it was really, really hot here in Phoenix. But the problem with killer heat waves isn't found in cities that are hot and dry, like Phoenix, or steadily hot, again like Phoenix, but those cities that have variable weather and large numbers of vulnerable populations of the elderly and the infirm--like Chicago.

You can read a 2002 article in Slate by Klinenberg here, and read some additional quotes from Klinenberg (who pointed out the correlations between ethnicity and fatality rates--with jobs and younger residents leaving, black and Anglo elderly were left alone, while growing Hispanic population meant that family connections were growing--in a 1999 Slate article here. Note the potential link between Robert Putnam's "social capital" theory and surviving a heat wave.

East Valley Tribune, September 3, 2002

Which killed more people: Hurricane Andrew, which devastated south Florida? TWA Flight 800, when it plunged into the ocean? The 1994 Northridge, California earthquake? The Oklahoma City bombing? Or the 1995 Chicago heat wave?

The answer? As Malcolm Gladwell noted in The New Yorker, more people -- 739 -- died from heat in Chicago during July 14-20, 1995, than in the others combined. But which of those five disasters received the least attention? Same answer: the Chicago heat wave.

With publication of Eric Klinenberg’s Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago, maybe that will change. Klinenberg, a sociologist at New York University, finds responses to an epic disaster utterly inadequate. Chicago officials considered the predictable heat wave an extreme weather event, one that government couldn’t change.

Newspaper columnists treated the heat as a novelty, to be accepted and endured. People considered those deaths unavoidable, believing that many elderly simply succumbed due to existing frailty or their unwillingness to seek help.

Officials and citizens just assumed that most victims were close to death anyway, and the heat just accelerated the process. But Klinenberg noted that if true, then fatalities in the weeks following should have been lower -- and they weren’t.

Hundreds of people died in Chicago that week because of decisions, both large and small, all shaped by one idea: that the heat was a “natural disaster” beyond government’s power. But Klinenberg proves that many deaths weren’t inevitable, but instead preventable -- if only we realized how much of this natural disaster was really our doing.

Klinenberg studied two adjacent low-income Chicago neighborhoods, Little Village and North Lawndale. Both had large numbers of poor and elderly residents, similar income, and (of course) the same weather, but 10 times as many people per capita died in North Lawndale.

Little Village is densely populated, with a growing Hispanic population, relatively low crime, and bustling street activity. Relatives and friends could check on their elderly neighbors, who felt safe enough to leave their hot homes for relief.

North Lawndale is sparsely populated, high crime, and drug infested. The exodus of blue-collar jobs from the city meant many elderly residents lived alone, far from family, and feared going out.

It wasn’t the heat alone that killed; it turned deadly only when combined with a dangerous, isolated neighborhood. Most who died, died alone. When we let neighborhoods become drug-infested and depopulated, when the elderly live far from relatives and trusted friends, hot weather can kill.

The “natural disaster” viewpoint made city government respond more slowly and inadequately, too. Chicago ran out of ambulances, yet could have nearly tripled the number available by calling for help from the suburbs. But streamlining and outsourcing of social services distanced officials from the neighborhoods, and when the city realized the scope of the disaster, it was too late.

Many “natural disasters” result because of human decisions: Building housing in flood plains and fire zones, failing to test and reinforce old dams, and letting civic and social institutions on which the elderly depend decay. But calling something a “natural disaster” means we don’t search for causes, even if the natural event only became a disaster due to our decisions.

As Gladwell and Klinenberg note, we judge most institutions on how they perform under “normal” conditions, and excuse performance under peak demand and extreme stress. But that’s not how we judge electric utilities, which we expect to perform on the year’s hottest day -- which deregulation boosters ignore at our peril.

We can create systems that handle great and rare stress, like the Chicago heat wave. But it takes both will and wallet, and something even more rare -- recognizing that what makes a natural event a disaster may be human acts and omissions.

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