NOAA 96-21

Contact:  Stephanie Kenitzer       FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE


The number of deaths that occurred during the July 1995 heat wave exceeded the average number of lives lost each year in the United States to floods, hurricanes, and tornadoes -- and many of these deaths could have been avoided, according to a Disaster Survey Report issued today by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

More than 1,000 people died during the July 1995 heat wave that hit the Midwest and many cities along the East Coast. In a normal year, about 175 Americans succumb to the demands of summer heat.

Chicago experienced its worst weather-related disaster, with 465 heat-related deaths recorded during the period from July 11-27, 1995. Milwaukee was also severely affected, with 85 heat- related deaths recorded during the same time period.

"In both Chicago and Milwaukee, the National Weather Service issued warnings of the developing heat wave several days in advance, which were quickly broadcast by the local media," said Kathryn D. Sullivan, former National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration chief scientist and leader of the national disaster survey team that investigated this event. "Given this advance warning, many, if not all, of the heat-related deaths associated with this event were preventable."

So what went wrong? According to the report, in Chicago and Milwaukee, a heat wave of this magnitude is so unusual that it was not immediately recognized as a public health emergency. The heat wave was a highly rare -- in some respects an unprecedented -- weather event because of its unusually high maximum and minimum temperatures and accompanying high relative humidities. "Unfortunately, a heat wave connotes discomfort, not violence; inconvenience, not alarm," said Sullivan.

Despite accurate National Weather Service warnings and advisories and effective media coverage, the report concludes people either did not receive or know how to use the information. Both Chicago and Milwaukee had extensive disaster preparedness plans for other weather events like floods or blizzards. However, due to the highly rare nature of the heat wave, neither city possessed an official plan for responding to heat emergencies.

The report recommends that the NWS focus preparedness efforts towards people who are most vulnerable to the dangers of heat. Among the most susceptible are the isolated elderly living in urban areas. This is because cities such as Chicago and Milwaukee have many urban dwellings constructed of materials such as brick that may trap hot, humid air at dangerous levels.

The report also recommends that emergency response organizations at the federal, state and local levels recognize severe heat waves as potential natural disasters, and that areas at risk should be prompted to develop emergency response plans for severe heat waves.

After a significant weather event, such as a heat wave, a disaster survey team may be assigned by NOAA to evaluate the role played by the National Weather Service, provide an objective appraisal about NWS performance, and make findings and recommendations. The team's report on the July 1995 Heat Wave is available through the National Weather Service home page on the Internet at: http://www.nws.noaa. gov/OM/omhome.htm or by contacting the NWS Office of Meteorology Customer Service Core at (301) 713-0090.


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