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Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago
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Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago

3.8  ·  Rating Details ·  557 Ratings  ·  58 Reviews
On Thursday, July 13, 1995, Chicagoans awoke to a blistering day in which the temperature would reach 106 degrees. The heat index, which measures how the temperature actually feels on the body, would hit 126 degrees by the time the day was over. Meteorologists had been warning residents about a two-day heat wave, but these temperatures did not end that soon. When the heat ...more
Paperback, 320 pages
Published July 15th 2003 by University Of Chicago Press (first published July 12th 2002)
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The Devil in the White City by Erik LarsonSin in the Second City by Karen AbbottThe Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey NiffeneggerThe Jungle by Upton SinclairThe Devil in the White City by Erik Larson
Chicago in history and fiction
32nd out of 145 books — 46 voters
Curse of the Narrows by Laura M. MacDonaldFive Days at Memorial by Sheri  FinkGilded Lives, Fatal Voyage by Hugh BrewsterThe Great Deluge by Douglas BrinkleyA Night to Remember by Walter Lord
Disasters, Tragedies, and Accidents
140th out of 146 books — 23 voters

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Community Reviews

(showing 1-30 of 558)
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Lorianne DiSabato
Jul 09, 2013 Lorianne DiSabato rated it really liked it
The story of the deadly 1995 Chicago heat wave is fascinating enough, but don't expect Eric Klinenberg's book to be a popularly-accessible page-turner. Klinenberg's book was written as a dissertation in sociology, so its methodology and supporting evidence are sound, but it seems to have been revised only minimally (if at all) for a lay audience.

The upshot of Klinenberg's analysis of what led to so many deaths in Chicago in July, 1995 is that living along leads to dying alone, as getting out of
Sep 17, 2013 molly rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: Davis Farnham
Shelves: history, epi-nerd, chicago
Of course, I have an obligatory heat wave story- I was 9 and spent the worst of it in my dad's North Side apartment without power or AC. We took turns taking cold baths. I was too hot to even read. That's how you know it's bad.

Despite the fact that I was there, I never realized what a public health disaster this heat wave (and other previous and subsequent ones) was for Chicago until this book was assigned to me in grad school. A quick survey of Chicagoan friends and family found that not a sing
Feb 22, 2009 Catherine rated it it was ok
Shelves: work, 2009
Klinenberg has some incredibly smart stuff to say about heat waves - natural disasters that generally cost more lives than any other kind (tsunamis aside, I presume), and yet which are routinely ignored when people think about the challenge of responding to such a public health crisis. There are reasons - not of them especially good - why people don't think of heatwaves in the same way they think of earthquakes or tornadoes: they don't leave carnage behind; there are no dramatic pictures to acco ...more
Joseph Schlesinger
Dec 26, 2015 Joseph Schlesinger rated it it was amazing
A damning indictment of all the dramatis personae who share the blame for what went wrong during the Chicago heat wave of 1995, resulting in a death toll exceeding 800. This well-presented scholarly analysis examines the factors affecting the city's social structure that contributed to the high mortality rate & the role that the municipal government, public aid agencies, utilities, & media played in this urban tragedy. The worrisome lesson asserted in the book's concluding chapter: a dis ...more
Jul 26, 2013 Wealhtheow rated it liked it
A mixture of sociology, epidemiology, and personal anecdotes of those who survived or died during a heat wave in a modern US city. Very moving, and does an excellent job of convincing the reader that social isolation and a lack of support for vulnerable populations (most particularly, the elderly poor) kill.
Kyle Bell
May 15, 2014 Kyle Bell rated it it was amazing
Klinenberg meticulously documents the travesty that was the Chicago heat wave of 1995. The heat wave exposed the significant weaknesses of the service delivery methods of the Chicago municipal government. Heat Wave exposes the systematic breakdown of local government at multiple levels in Chicago. Mid-level bureaucrats failed to communicate across departments. The mayor and his administration refused to even acknowledge the rising death toll. Indeed, the city failed to even implement its own eme ...more
Jul 12, 2015 Ashley rated it really liked it
When you think about disasters that caused a whole bunch of deaths in one swoop in the US in the last 25 or 30 years (outside of a war), you probably think about the September 11 attacks, which killed 2,977 in the US. If I were to ask you what the next biggest disaster in terms of deaths, you’d probably also get it right: Hurricane Katrina and its 1,833 deaths. But do you know what caused the third greatest number of deaths in the past 25 years?

Surprisingly (to me, at least) it was the 1995 Chic
Aug 16, 2009 cory rated it really liked it
a very interesting look into the 1995 heat wave in Chicago in 1995 that killed more than 700. he goes through the social causes for their deaths, including neighborhood characteristics, city response, and media response. most of the folks who died were poor male seniors living alone & isolated lives. the most interesting part for me, besides learning who's most at risk for heat-related deaths & the societal trends that have led more seniors to be living alone & cut off from support s ...more
Aug 09, 2015 Heather rated it really liked it
I was recently stunned by the fact that Cook County had the highest number of weather-related deaths of any county in the U.S. over the last several decades. This includes New Orleans and other areas prone to Hurricanes, earthquakes, etc. The main driver was the heat wave of 1995 which caused more than 700 deaths.
Eric Klineberg's "social autopsy" of the Chicago heat wave looks at the social isolation of seniors who lived in high-crime neighborhoods and were afraid to leave their houses or open t
Sep 12, 2016 Daria rated it really liked it
Shelves: phd
If you are looking for a good example of a case study - this is a brillant choice.
Aug 17, 2016 Emily rated it liked it
Shelves: nonfiction
I really want to say this book is an urbanist must-read, with its comprehensive look at how multiple urban systems can fail and kill hundreds without anyone in particular being to blame. It's absolutely an important disaster worth reading about, especially considering how little it's represented in US history of natural disasters and their not so natural consequences. It says a lot about segregation and poverty in Chicago. Unfortunately, it's a book where the academic language and structure are ...more
May 23, 2011 AJ rated it really liked it
I decided to write a paper on social and political dysfunction before, during, and after natural disasters. This was a perfect book to help me in my research, so I used the 1995 heat wave as my case study for my paper.

This book was very interesting, and it shed light on the dysfunction that is rampant in urban America that leads to tragedies like the Chicago heat wave, or Katrina. The poor, the elderly, and the isolated are forgotten about in society which directly contributes to their demise du
I'll concede that the content has value; it was interesting and eye-opening and appropriately infuriating. I sincerely respect the author's years of effort and the comprehensive research invested into this book. Klinenberg's dedication to the subject is obvious, and I admire it.

However, his writing style was horrific: he was perpetually long-winded and unbelievably prone to redundancy, not qualities I'm searching for in nonfiction. He has no notion of conciseness—he could have conveyed all of t
Carolyn Leshyn
Jul 16, 2015 Carolyn Leshyn rated it really liked it
Shelves: langley
Klinenberg has completed an extensive examination of the 1995 heat wave in Chicago by looking into the social and cultural conditions, the political ramifications and tne institutional aspects of the disaster.

The many deaths were mainly the old and the poor, living alone, who endured a culture of fear (fear of criminal activity in their area) and lack of safe public spaces. These individuals died alone, unprotected and uncared for. All these conditions formed this disaster.

The areas with the lea
May 03, 2013 Sandy rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
July 13, 1995, Chicagoans awoke to a blistering day in which the temperature would reach 106 degrees. The heat index, which measures how the temperature actually feels on the body, would hit 126 degrees by the time the day was over. Meteorologists had been warning residents about a two-day heat wave, but these temperatures did not end that soon. When the heat wave broke a week later, city streets had buckled; the records for electrical use were shattered; and power grids had failed, leaving resi ...more
Jan 23, 2016 Fishface rated it liked it
I had to read this when I learned it was about a major disaster that took place less than 10 years ago, that I somehow never heard about -- and me only 4 hours away by car! While the subject is very interesting, the author tries much too hard to sound scholarly. The five-dollar words and windy sentences make for a very dry read. He also backtracks and repeats himself so much that the point he's trying to make finally gets lost. I have to say, though, the facts and figures he presents are pretty ...more
Nov 17, 2013 Emily rated it really liked it
Shelves: school
As his title indicates, Klinenberg employs more than the typical tools of sociology—ethnographic fieldwork, participation observation, interviews, archival research, mapping, and statistical analysis (13)—to retroactively explore the 1995 heat wave that took more than 700 lives from Chicago's most vulnerable. Just as a medical autopsy is performed in order to determine the physiological cause of death, Klinenberg argues that a social autopsy of the heat wave similarly views the city of Chicago a ...more
Feb 23, 2014 Angie rated it it was amazing
A powerful assessment of the 1995 deadly heat wave that killed over 700 elderly, poor, and ethnoracial in urban Chicago. Klinenberg delves into the depths of the communities hit, their struggle with crime and poverty; the government non-role as it does not set off alarms until the body count accelerates; the media coverage and how it choose to not report information unless it sold a paper; and the changes government made because of the heat wave. However government still lacks in properly dealin ...more
Jul 08, 2015 BMR, MSW, LSW rated it it was amazing
This book is a good companion to County. The missed opportunities, the blatant lies from City Hall and other main actors, the high death toll, it was too much at times and I wanted to throw the book and scream.

It is fascinating to read this 20 years after the Chicago heat wave of July 1995 that killed nearly 800 people. I am a social worker now, and I am aware of many changes that have happened in the "aging network" of people who work with marginalized older adults in the city (including people
Feb 12, 2011 Gloria rated it really liked it
We read this book so we could understand the dysfunction that is the city of Chicago so that we could better understand the dysfunction of its school system. Found it very "1984" that after hundreds had died in this heat wave many started to doubt that it ever happen. Word was put out that the death toll was exaggerated. It's as if from one day to the next they forgot the refrigerated trucks outside the Cook County Medical Examiners office were really there to take the overflow of bodies. And wh ...more
Oct 06, 2007 Bridget rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: everyone
Shelves: socialscience
I think this was Klineberg's dissertation from Berkeley, but don't let the academic aspect turn you off from this one. It's a case study of the heat wave epidemic that hit Chicago in 1995, ultimately killing over 700 people. Klineberg explores the reasons why, contrasting this heat wave against another in the city decades earlier that killed almost no one. He ends up talking a lot about how social conditions and social relationships have changed (allowing so many people to die home alone during ...more
Dec 26, 2007 Amy rated it really liked it
My first summer in Chicago -- 1995 -- a heat wave killed 700 people, nearly 50 of whom went unidentified and were buried in a mass grave. That number has haunted me ever since. How could 50 people in one city be so cut off from family or friends that no one missed them when they died? Klinenberg's book has some answers. He examines the social isolation, institutionalized racism, and underfunded services that led to the deaths of hundreds of people that summer. He also makes a pilgrimage to the m ...more
Tornado Quest
Overall, I'd have to say this is a good read. Many reviews are quite upset or disappointed with the author and the writing style. If you're into social sciences, this will be up your alley. As for me, I'm much less interested in the social disaster that resulted from the heat wave and more interested in the meteorological factors of this particular event. Heat waves are known by atmospheric scientists as the silent killer...and for good reason. They don't get the drama and ratings that more visu ...more
Lauren orso
Dec 14, 2013 Lauren orso rated it really liked it
Shelves: read2013
without a doubt the best book about a heat wave i've ever read.

no but seriously folks, a sociologist's take on the perfect storm-heat wave that killed over 750 people, mostly minorities and the elderly, and how the city's public safety and health failures combined with changing urban demographics, public policy, and even journalism to allow and hide HOW THIS HAPPENED in 1995.

i think the book was written in 2000, it would be interesting to see a rewrite/new intro considering the big freak weathe
Sep 29, 2015 Jamie rated it really liked it
I was very worried that this book would fall into Kunstler "Long Emergency" territory and just keep repeating the same message over and over, but it did not. This was a great read. Each chapter takes you into a new aspect of the heat wave of 1995, each more disturbing than the next. If you haven't totally lost your faith in politicians and government, this book will get you there and encourage you to add journalists to your list of deplorable human beings.
A great book for non-Chicagoans, too. Y
Jul 23, 2015 Layne rated it liked it
Shelves: non-fiction, chicago
Fascinating and heartbreaking. I moved to Chicago the year after this happened, so most of the story was new to me. I was not aware of the severity or the high number of fatalities. Essential reading for Chicago and urban studies.

That said, it's very much a sociology text and not narrative non-fiction. So it can be very dry and repetitive as the thesis and back-up statements are made at the beginning, then fleshed out a little more in the supporting chapters. You could read the opening and stil
Jan 03, 2009 Tracy rated it it was ok
Recommends it for: International Olympic Committee
Recommended to Tracy by: Kari
The social scientist approach makes for dry reading about a serious tragedy, one of the worst disasters in the 1990s. Because the heat wave victims were the poor, elderly, and friendless, this calamity is little remembered for the true policy failure that it was. The fact that Mayor Daley, who presided over this preventable disaster, is now lobbying for the Olympics is astonishing - especially since it's been a little over a year since he proved how inept he is at hosting public sporting events ...more
Apr 26, 2010 Tara rated it really liked it
Shelves: bookstore-coop
I remember this heat wave, suffering, with a friend. We were riding bikes, and I said something about the heat wave killing people, implying we could be next. My friend said, those people were trapped inside. We were safe. This book is about the people trapped inside. Social Autopsy is an accurate description of what happened-- why so many people died, which neighborhoods had the highest mortality, how the city responded to the crisis and minimized the deaths.
Sunny Moraine
May 02, 2009 Sunny Moraine rated it really liked it
Interesting. Apparently methodologically controversial, at least where a couple people are concerned, though I have yet to read the articles. The examinations of death rates by age, race, socioeconomic status, and geographical location are extremely compelling, but when Eric gets political he gets a little ranty and I understand the POV of the people who claim he's working off certain biases. Still, good read. Recommended.
Mar 11, 2013 Jenna rated it really liked it
Shelves: school
Stunning, insightful, and shows how the reaches of government have so much potential to do right, and can fail their residents so brutally, both in normal times and under extraordinary circumstances. Unpacks the communication strategies of politicians in powerful ways, as well as showing the biases of the media. Most importantly, it shows the importance of institutions equitably investing in neighborhoods and the importance of building community.
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Eric Klinenberg is Professor of Sociology; Public Policy; and Media, Culture, and Communications at New York University. He is the author of Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone (The Penguin Press, 2012), Fighting for Air: The Battle to Control America’s Media (Metropolitan Books, 2007), and Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago (University of Chica ...more
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