The death of three women at a Chicago senior living facility during a May heat spike has brought tragedy to families and raised questions about how well the city is prepared for the climate crisis.
On May 14, three women—Janice Lee Reed, 68; Gwendolyn Osborne, 72; and Delores McNeely, 76—were found dead in the city’s James Sneider Apartments.
The county medical examiner has yet to officially rule on the cause of their deaths, but their families believe that building’s managers refused multiple complaints to turn off the facility’s heating system, causing the women to perish in apartments that felt like a “brick oven.”
“What happened is deplorable. They basically had them in a brick oven and despite their pleas for help no one responded until three of them died,” attorney Larry Rogers, who represents Janice Lee Reed’s in a recently filed wrongful death suit, told The Chicago Sun-Times.
“They’re deciding financially not to turn on the air because it costs more money, that’s what it appears to me,” Mr Rogers added.
The operator of the building has denied this claim.
“There is no cost savings related to the operation of the heat as compared to the air conditioning, and the building’s management was obligated to comply with the city of Chicago’s heat ordinance. A cost analysis was not involved in the decision-making,” Paul Roldan, president and chief executive of the Hispanic Housing Development Corp., said in a statement.
“We are deeply saddened by the deaths,” he added. “We mourn the loss … and send our deepest sympathies to their families and friends.”
Alderwoman Maria Hadden, whose ward includes the building, told NBC Chicago the company appears to have misunderstood the spirit of Chicago’s heat ordinance, which requires rental properties to be heated to at least 68 degrees Fahrenheit between the fall and late spring to account for the city’s cold winters.
“If we can’t trust these companies to use their common sense, to use their logic and to uphold their responsibility to their tenants,” she said, “then we’ll come up with some new legislation to make them do so.”
City officials are considering a new ordinance that would exempt property owners from the heat ordinance during temperature spikes like the one this May, where thermometers reached up to 90 degrees unseasonably early.
The deaths are a tragic echo of Chicago’s 1995 heat wave, which killed more than 700 people and sent refrigerated trucks filled with bodies across the city. Following the deaths, Chicago officials began implementing programs like using city buildings as cooling centers and having municipal workers call and check in on elderly and frail residents.
Still, even with these changes, some are worried that places like Chicago aren’t prepared enough for the era of the climate crisis, where previously freak heat waves will strike with growing regularity, putting the most vulnerable at the highest risk.
“We recognize people need heating in cold weather and set up programs, financial assistance, to enable that but we don’t do that for cooling,” Gregory Wellenius, a Boston University professor of environmental health who has studied heat-related deaths, told The Associated Press. “But subsidies for cooling are really controversial (because) for many people cooling is seen as a luxury item.”
While sunbelt cities like Dallas and Phoenix have high rates of home air conditioning, many places in the Northeast and Midwest don’t. Mr Wellenius estimated that nearly 6,000 people a year die from excess heat, at a rate 8 times greater than what is reported by coroners.
This phenomenon was brought into striking relief last summer, when a heat wave in the Pacific Northwest of the US and Canada killed more than 600 people.
George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.