Actually, the title of today's post comes from a book: Heat Wave, by Eric Klinenberg. In it he discusses the various elements of the tragic and deadly heat wave of July, 1995 in Chicago. I truly love Chicago and was there that summer, working at my then-seminary-now-alma mater, Meadville Theological School of Lombard College (located in neither Meadville nor Lombard but Hyde Park on the U of C campus). I also worked wrapping danishes and doughnuts at my wife's coffee shop ("Classic's Cafe") in the morning. I can tell you, it was really hot.
Most of us that week spent all of our time trying to stay cool. This was an easier thing for some. My wife remembers all of the professors who would dash from their air-conditioned offices to her counter for a cup of (you guessed it) hot coffee, before returning to work. In fact, anyone who could afford an air conditioner had it running constantly (until one of the occasional power outages, that is). The rest of us had to be more creative. To escape, I lived in the M/L basement during the day, where it was a mere 95 degrees. One image that I will keep with me forever is that of the incredibly large numbers of people standing shoulder to shoulder in Lake Michigan. We spent some time there ourselves, along with just about everyone else in the world...one mass of very warm South Side humanity.
Anyway, this book shows what was obvious to anyone who went through that time. Race and class matter in the USA. According to Klinenburg, 739 people above the norm died in Chicago during the week of July 14-20. Many more were hospitalized. Naturally, it was the poor who suffered the most.
To give you an idea of the magnitude of the disaster, here is a quote from the introduction to the book.
"More than twice as many people died in the heat wave as in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, when approximately three hundred people perished. More recent U.S. environmental disasters, such as California's Northridge earthquake of 1994 and Florida's Hurricane Andrew in 1992, caused the deaths of one-tenth and one-twentieth the heat wave total, respectively."
Klinenberg tries to both examine what went wrong and suggest ways in which we could improve the odds of survivability in the future. Some of it is hard reading (he is a sociologist) but mostly it is clear and compelling. Also, parts of it are really sad.
The events in this book happened ten years ago. Over the summer I have been thinking about how our faith plays a role in disasters such as this. In many ways the heat wave merely underlined and expanded a crisis that continues every day. Are there things that we people of faith--Christian Humanists in particular--can say or do to make the world a better, safer place for all? Can we truly become a nation of people who respect even the poorest and weakest among us?
I hope so. Let's try.