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Best of Slow Journalism: Reliving Chicago’s deadly heat wave

Photo: AP Photo/Rajanish Kakade

“It’s hot. It’s very hot… We all have our little problems, but let’s not blow it out of proportion,” said Chicago mayor Richard M Daley at a press conference in July 1995, trying to downplay the city’s heat wave. Mayor Daley never expected that the death toll from the heat wave would rise above 700 within a few days.

In a Chicago article, medical examiners, police officers, politicians, meteorologists and morgue volunteers recall how the extreme weather sparked a major emergency. As well as recalling their own stories, the interviewees uncover some of the reasons for the fatally slow reaction to the catastrophe. “To be honest, we didn’t have a plan for anything like this because nothing like this had ever happened before,” says Roger Kiley, then chief of staff for mayor Daley.

By the time the authorities woke up to the reality of the crisis it was already too late. Some people were in such a bad condition that last-minute medical assistance wouldn’t have made much difference. The enormity of the challenge was compounded by residents who refused help from government workers. Daniel Alvarez Sr, the former commissioner of the Chicago Department of Human Services, remembers how elderly people often rejected help, shouting: “Get out of here! I don’t want anything to do with the City of Chicago! You’re a bunch of politicians!”

Chicago looks back at the tragic events with a diverse selection of stories from the people who were there. It’s an immersive, moving and engaging read.

Read about Chicago’s 1995 heat wave here.

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