Constable: Hurricanes? Earthquakes? The biggest threat is right here: extreme heat

  • Ivan Gonzalez of Hanover Park takes a drink of cold water as he works with a crew from Plote Construction resurfacing Randall Road on Monday in Lake in the Hills.

      Ivan Gonzalez of Hanover Park takes a drink of cold water as he works with a crew from Plote Construction resurfacing Randall Road on Monday in Lake in the Hills. Patrick Kunzer | Staff Photographer

  • LIKE IN 1995: A common scene 24 years ago this week, workers wheel another body to refrigerated trucks outside the Cook County morgue on July 18, 1995. The heat and humidity of that week killed an estimated 739 people in Chicago and the suburbs.

    LIKE IN 1995: A common scene 24 years ago this week, workers wheel another body to refrigerated trucks outside the Cook County morgue on July 18, 1995. The heat and humidity of that week killed an estimated 739 people in Chicago and the suburbs. Associated Press

  • The heat and humidity can't stop this crew from Plote Construction from working on a Randall Road resurfacing project Monday in Lake in the Hills.

      The heat and humidity can't stop this crew from Plote Construction from working on a Randall Road resurfacing project Monday in Lake in the Hills. Patrick Kunzer | Staff Photographer

 
 
Updated 7/16/2019 6:33 AM

My wife and I worry about our adult sons living in dangerous places. We texted Ross in Los Angeles the second we heard about the earthquakes this month. We did the same over the weekend for Ben in New Orleans as we watched television coverage of Hurricane Barry bearing down on Louisiana.

Turns out the biggest risk to our sons is the heat wave our youngest, Will, faces this week at home in the suburbs working his job as a camp counselor.

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"Extreme heat often results in the highest annual number of deaths among all weather-related disasters," says ready.gov, the official website of the Department of Homeland Security, which gives advice on how to "plan ahead for disasters."

We sent that ready.gov link to our out-of-town sons. Other people suffered earthquake damage, but Ross just got a little shaken up while watching a scary movie in a theater. Some suffered Barry flooding, but Ben spent the weekend reading in his air-conditioned apartment because of some rain and wind caused by Barry.

This week's heat and humidity in the suburbs could be more deadly, with high temperatures of 96 on Thursday and 98 on Friday, the National Weather Service predicts.

Americans are more likely to be killed by heat or drought than by earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes, floods or wildfires, according to a study published in the International Journal of Health Geographics.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

University of South Carolina researchers Kevin Borden and Susan Cutter found that of the 19,958 fatalities caused by natural disasters from 1970 to 2004 in the United States, the most (3,906) were caused by heat and drought.

In Cook County, 739 people were killed by the heat during a week when temperatures hit 104 degrees on July 13, 1995, and remained around 100 degrees for a week. Humidity makes the heat feel even hotter.

Our Midwest staples of severe storms, thunderstorms, hail, fog and wind proved the second deadliest weather, with 3,762 deaths. Rounding out the top killers were winter weather (3,612), flooding (2,788), tornadoes (2,314) and lightning (2,261).

According to the lightning fatality statistics on weather.gov, my wife and I are at greater risk from lightning so far this year than our sons are from earthquakes and hurricanes.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Death tolls from hurricanes are controversial. Health agencies estimate 4,645 people died in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria ripped through that island in September 2017, but the official government death toll is only 64. The official government report also says 64 people were killed by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, but unofficial tallies estimate 1,833 died in that storm that devastated New Orleans and the surrounding areas.

Likewise, heat deaths often have contributing causes, such as heart disease or lung ailments, and officials often don't recognize the role heat plays in fatalities.

"Heat waves are ignored because they pinpoint society's invisible people: the elderly, the isolated, the poor and the sick," Eric Klinenberg, a New York University sociologist and author of "Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago," told me when I was writing about the death in 2006 of a 79-year-old Hanover Park woman who was one of 37 heat deaths that summer in Cook County.

More homes are air-conditioned now than they were in 1995, but some people still avoid using them in an attempt to keep down costs. That can be dangerous.

"Do not use electric fans when the temperature outside is more than 95 degrees, as this could increase the risk of heat-related illness," warns ready.gov. "Fans create air flow and a false sense of comfort, but do not reduce body temperature."

Experts tell people to spend time in air-conditioned places, such as theaters, malls or libraries. Cool baths help. Staying hydrated with water and sips of cool sports drinks with salt and sugar reduce the risks from heat.

Or you could visit relatives in places where the biggest dangers are only earthquakes or hurricanes.

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