Heat Kills 376 In Chicago; Toll May Hit 500 Elderly Most Vulnerable Because They Often Live Alone, Stay Inside

City authorities Tuesday raised the death toll in Chicago’s heat disaster to 376 and said the number of deaths at least partly attributable to five days of 100-degree heat could reach 500.

Although the flow of bodies into Cook County Morgue finally slowed to a trickle Tuesday, 120 corpses still await autopsies. With all 222 bays filled, morgue officials over the weekend had to call in refrigeration trucks to handle the overflow of bodies, most of them of elderly people.

The city has begun to investigate how well the heat emergency was handled.

“We are assessing what we have done and what more could have been done,” said Jim Williams, Mayor Richard M. Daley’s press secretary. “The mayor is terribly concerned and upset about this tragedy. As far as all the criticism, it is expected.”

There was no shortage of it.

Senior groups criticized the police. The mayor’s office was criticized for being unprepared for a heat emergency and city officials were singled out for failing to check on the elderly door-to-door.

The death toll underscored the vulnerability of elderly people who often live in relative anonymity in large urban centers.

Chicago, for example, has more than 443,000 residents over the age of 60 and 800 city employees charged with keeping tabs on them.

High temperature and humidity in and of themselves pose a danger to senior citizens. But the threat to many seniors is magnified because they live alone, stay inside because of fear of crime and do not have air conditioners.

The additional deaths in Chicago raised the national death toll to at least 669 as officials in other states ruled that heat was a cause of or had contributed to deaths last week, when the Northeast and Midwest were gripped by a suffocating combination of heat and humidity.

The death toll topped that of 1987, when at least 96 deaths from the Plains to the East Coast were blamed on heat, but didn’t approach the estimated 1,500 fatalities from a 1980 heat wave.

In Milwaukee, officials said heat caused or contributed to 60 deaths. Among them were about 18 people who were taking anti-psychotic drugs that block the body’s ability to release heat, said Medical Examiner Jeffrey Jentzen.

The Chicago deaths were classified as heat-related based on the temperature of the bodies and certain physical signs, including bleeding and bruising of the corpses.

In Cook County, officials classify a death as heat-related if the heat was a contributing factor. Definitions of heat-related death vary in different cities and states, with some classifying a death as heat-related only if heat was the primary cause.

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