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JIM LEHRER: It is the first week in August, and that means it’s routinely hot most everywhere. But in the middle part of the country, it’s dangerously hot. From Minnesota to Texas, the heat has been responsible for more than 50 deaths this summer, and temperatures in the 90s and above 100 have been routine. Our report is from Elizabeth Brackett of WTTW-Chicago.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: A second week of scorching Midwest heat and a heat warning issued by the National Weather Service sent city of Chicago outreach workers into the streets this week. Five days of over 90-degree temperatures plus high humidity pushed the heat index to a dangerous 105. Outreach workers were particularly concerned about the effect of the heat on the city’s senior population. Luis Santana’s Spanish didn’t work with this elderly Polish woman, but neighborhood children helped out.
LUIS SANTANA: Ask her how cool her house is?
CHILD: Good, she says it’s okay.
LUIS SANTANA: Ask her if she has enough water and food.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: The outreach workers also enlist the help of neighbors.
LUIS SANTANA: If you see anything funny. You don’t see her for a couple of days, please call our office and we’ll come back out and check up on her.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Santana determined this woman was not in immediate danger from the heat.
LUIS SANTANA: I think she was in good shape because she was able to pick up the pail of water and I was surprised. She was coherent, able to communicate. She wasn’t like crabby like, you know, the weather has a way to put people in a bad mood. She seemed to be just doing her regular routine and thanks to the neighbors that she has now and these young kids, she’ll be better watched and more observed for anything that’s wrong.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: That was Mayor Richard Daley’s plea this week, “keep watch on your neighbors.”
MAYOR RICHARD DALEY: I ask everyone to contact their neighbors, anyone with special needs making sure that anybody in your block or apartment building that you contact them. If you have any problems, please call 311 and we’ll get people out there.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: The mayor is particularly sensitive to the lethal impact of heat. In 1995, an extreme heat wave caught the city unprepared and 628 people died. Now, when the heat index hits 105, the city opens an extreme weather command center. City fire commissioner James Joyce.
JAMES JOYCE: Well, we have a high ranking representative of all of the key city agencies present so that when we monitor calls for service, we get requests from the field from police or fire units or paramedics, we have instant access to high level decision makers. So that if Human Services had a building, went into a building and found a lot of seniors in distress, we could dispatch fire units there, police, street and sands provide vehicles, things like that.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: The city also opened 100 cooling centers in senior citizens buildings and senior centers. The elderly can seek relief from the heat in the air-conditioned facilities from 8:00 in the morning until 7:00 in the evening. As the temperatures rose, more and more seniors made their way to the centers, says the city’s commissioner of aging.
ANNA WILLIS: On Tuesday we had approximately 1100 seniors that participated in programs and activities and used our centers as cooling– as a cooling environment.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: The heat pushed the local power company, Commonwealth Edison, to its highest output of the year. But unlike two years ago, when the city was hit with a series of power shortages during the hottest months of the summer, Com Ed’s David Helvig says this year the power company is ready for the heat.
DAVID HELVIG: Actually our preparations for this summer started as you’ll remember two years ago fully two years ago after our problems in the summer of 1999. We’ve had thousands of workers of our employees and contractors accomplishing hundreds of capacity improvements and tens of thousands of maintenance activities over the last two years in order to get the system to the state of readiness and reliability that it is in today. But we have plenty of supply. We expect our peak loading to 22,100 megawatts. And, even at that, we will have over 2200 megawatts in reserve.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Even with the power on, there are many in the city without air conditioning leaving few ways to cool off. And that can be deadly. This hot second floor apartment contributed to the heat related death of a 79-year-old women this weekend. She was the sole caretaker for her elderly brother who paramedics took to a nursing home also because of heat related problems. Her death was one of the 21 heat related deaths this summer. One of her acquaintances says he now wishes he had heeded the city’s warnings to check on his neighbors.
JESSE SODA: It never occurred to me. I just assumed that everybody is all right, you see them, and you just feel that they’re okay. But….
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Will do you anything different now?
JESSE SODA: I think I’m going to check on some of my friends.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Yesterday, the city got a break from the heat, but it came with a price. Up to four inches fell in an hour closing down portions of every expressway into the city.
MAN: I got stuck right there in the middle and water started flowing n after a few minutes I jumped out, knee high water and I push mind car out with the help of that gentleman over there.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: 2.3 billion gallons of water flooded the city’s deep tunnel system forcing the city to dump raw sewage into Lake Michigan. And today, temperatures are inching back toward the 90’s.