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Disaster Zone: Heat Waves in the Pacific Northwest


July 26, 2021  by  Eric Holdeman
Category:  Climate Change Emergency Management Guest Author

Disaster Zone: Heat Waves in the Pacific Northwest

You cannot attribute every disaster that is weather related to a single cause like climate change. The connections are tenuous, and yet what we are seeing today, around the world, are more frequent, more severe, weather-related disasters.

Here in the United States we've had record heat in the West and storms and flooding in the East. Now, we are on the cusp of what may turn out to be a record fire season due to extreme drought and record heat temperatures.

I remember back “at the turn of the century” when the National Weather Service’s office in Seattle started a new program to monitor heat waves in this region. At the time I was the King County Office of Emergency Management (OEM) Director, and I thought this new emphasis unusual: When do we get that type of heat? How could it ever be considered a hazard for this region?

It turns out that the weather people knew more than me! Our summers and overall temperatures are getting a bit warmer, and with it our fire seasons have also increased in size, complexity, and cost.

The June 2021 heat wave we experienced brought record hot temperatures to the west and east side of the mountains, but though it was pretty bad, one of the key elements is that it only lasted 3-4 days on the west side of the mountains.

Collectively, we need to start thinking now about heatwaves that last much longer, even for weeks of duration. There is a terrific book, Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago by Eric Klinenberg, detailing a heat event that happened in the city in 1995.

The book gives you a great picture into what public authorities were dealing with during this disaster. I quote from an Amazon review of the book extensively below:

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 wave broke a week later, city streets had buckled; the records for electrical use were shattered; and power grids had failed, leaving residents without electricity for up to two days. And by July 20, over seven hundred people had perished-more than twice the number that died in the Chicago Fire of 1871, twenty times the number of those struck by Hurricane Andrew in 1992—in the great Chicago heat wave, one of the deadliest in American history.

Heat waves in the United States kill more people during a typical year than all other natural disasters combined. Until now, no one could explain either the overwhelming number or the heartbreaking manner of the deaths resulting from the 1995 Chicago heat wave. Meteorologists and medical scientists have been unable to account for the scale of the trauma and political officials have puzzled over the sources of the city's vulnerability. In Heat Wave, Eric Klinenberg takes us inside the anatomy of the metropolis to conduct what he calls a "social autopsy," examining the social, political, and institutional organs of the city that made this urban disaster so much worse than it ought to have been.

Starting with the question of why so many people died at home alone, Klinenberg investigates why some neighborhoods experienced greater mortality than others, how the city government responded to the crisis, and how journalists, scientists, and public officials reported on and explained these events.

Through a combination of years of fieldwork, extensive interviews, and archival research, Klinenberg uncovered how a number of surprising and unsettling forms of social breakdown — including the literal and social isolation of seniors, the institutional abandonment of poor neighborhoods, and the retrenchment of public assistance programs — all contributed to the high fatality rates. The human catastrophe, he argues, cannot simply be blamed on the failures of any particular individuals or organizations. For when hundreds of people die behind locked doors and sealed windows, out of contact with friends, family, community groups, and public agencies, everyone is implicated in their demise. 

Since 1995 Russia and France have also experienced prolonged heat waves like what Chicago experienced in the mid-90s.

A friend of mine recently pointed out to me that individuals, friends, and families bear the burden of looking in after their loved ones during such extreme events to check whether they do or don’t have air conditioning or other extenuating circumstances that make a person more vulnerable to the heat.

Having said that, it is government that is looked to as providing a safety net for vulnerable individuals and communities. As I always say, forewarned is forearmed. We should not be thinking that the most recent heat wave will be our last nor the longest — for today, and for years to come.

Now is the time to think through what it will take to mobilize all of our public resources to counter the possibility of a mass casualty event as people die in their homes of heat-related illnesses. It took Chicago too long to mobilize the door-to-door resources that were thrown at the problem too little, too late. Now is the time to plan!


MRSC is a private nonprofit organization serving local governments in Washington State. Eligible government agencies in Washington State may use our free, one-on-one Ask MRSC service to get answers to legal, policy, or financial questions.

About Eric Holdeman

Eric is a nationally known emergency manager and consultant. He has 28 years of emergency management experience, having served at the federal, state (Washington), and local government (King County) level, as well as in the nonprofit sector. He is the Principal for Eric Holdeman and Associates and serves the Director for the Center for Regional Disaster Resilience, which is part of the Pacific Northwest Economic Region (PNWER).

He is a prolific writer, authoring numerous articles for professional journals and opinion pieces for local, regional and national newspapers including the Washington Post. He is a Senior Fellow and contributing writer for Emergency Management magazine, where he blogs about emergency management and homeland security at www.disaster-zone.com. Eric also hosts the Disaster Zone podcast.

Eric is writing as a guest author. The views expressed in guest columns represent the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of MRSC.

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