The Socially Vulnerable in Catastrophes and Disasters

If you consume any local media in Chicago, it would be hard to miss that last week was the 20th anniversary of the Great Chicago Heatwave of 1995.  Twenty years ago, temperatures in the city climbed to 106 degrees, with a heat index of 120.  Over 700 Chicagoans died as a result of the extreme temps: most of whom were the elderly poor.


What is remarkable, is that this happened in America, in the recent past.  This wasn’t some forgotten era, an ephemeral ghost haunting pages of history books.  In our lifetime, people died because they were poor and socially isolated.  Moreover, the destructiveness of the Chicago Heatwave was merely a sign of marginalizing neglect that is symptomatic of this new version of big American cities.  Eric Klinenberg (author of Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago) noted that examination of the disaster reveals “not simply the obvious relationship between poverty and suffering, but some of the institutional and social mechanisms upon which extreme forms of American insecurity are built” (1999).

In many ways, those that died during the Chicago Heat Wave illustrate how the socially vulnerable are at increased risk in natural disasters.  Some of those that died did so without working air conditions or even the economic resources to operate the ones they owned.  Many were disabled- unable to transport themselves out of their smothering apartments to cooling centers and public spaces where they could get cool.

It is no surprise that the some of the Chicago neighborhoods with the highest rates of heat related deaths were also those with the highest levels of violent crime in the year preceding the heat wave.  Neighborhoods that had slowly deteriorated over during the second half of the twentieth century presented a unique challenge to the socially vulnerable: escape to the cooling centers and public spaces outdoors, where they risked falling victim to the violent criminal activity in their neighborhoods or stay in their suffocating apartments.  Many “chose” to stay and many died.

Table 3 from page 85 of “Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago”.

Ten years following the Heat Wave, Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast of Mexico in the Summer of 2005.  Unfortunately, the lessons learned in Chicago were ignored in the Gulf Coast and 1,100 residents of New Orleans and St. Bernard Parish died when levees broke.  Again, the socially vulnerable bore the brunt of the storm.  At the time, Louisiana was the second poorest state in the Union.  More than 90,000 people in Louisiana made less than $10,000 a year.  African-Americans made 40% less in the Gulf Coast than whites.


Twenty-three percent of the New Orleans residents were considered poor (which was 76% higher than the national average).  Moreover, one in four New Orleans residents didn’t have access to a car, which might have been useful for escaping Katrina.  Moreover, the poor in the Gulf Coast overwhelmingly live in substandard housing- which was problematic when levees broke, unleashing the high waters of the flooding Lake Pontchartrain and the Mississippi River.


Those unfamiliar with how poverty works often assume that in times of emergency, individuals use personal resources to avoid catastrophe.  The problem with this is the assumption that individuals have personal resources at their disposal to avoid catastrophe.  Many don’t; they just paid the rent; it’s a week until pay day.  Many of the poor are forced to weather such events in place. Most of the time, this isn’t about the personal responsibility of individuals who don’t evacuate or seek out cooling centers.

The Pressure and Release (PAR) Model of Vulnerability and Disaster by Blaikie et al (1994)

This is about poverty and inequality in America.  Inequality before, during and after emergent weather events predicts the harm and devastation experienced by individuals.  Increasing inequality in America means that we can expect not only greater vulnerability to these events, but also greater devastation among those who are least likely to survive it.

Useful Resources

Klinenberg, Eric. 1999.  Denaturalizing Disaster: A Social Autopsy of the 1995 Chicago Heat Wave.  Theory and Society 28: 239-295.

Klinenberg, Eric. 2002. Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Center for American Progress.  2005.  Who are Katrina’s Victims?

Berube, Alan and Bruce Katz.  2005.  Katrina’s Window: Confronting Concentrated Poverty Across America.  Brookings Institution.

Berube, Alan and Steven Raphael.  2005.  Access to Cars in New Orleans.  Brookings Institution.


Author: Jessica Bishop-Royse

Jessica Bishop-Royse is the SSRC’s Senior Research Methodologist. Her areas of interest include: health disparities, demography, crime, methods, and statistics. She often finds herself navigating the fields of sociology, demography, epidemiology, medicine, public health, and policy. She was broadly trained in data collection, Stata, quantitative research methodology, as well as statistics. She has experience with multi-level analyses, survival analyses, and multivariate regression. Outside of the work context, Jessi is interested in writing, reading, travel, photography, and sport.

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