Independent Lens


Cooked: Survival by Zip Code

Cooked: Survival by Zip Code tells the story of the tragic 1995 Chicago heatwave, the most traumatic in U.S. history, in which 739 citizens died over the course of just a single week, most of them poor, elderly, and African American. Cooked is a story about life, death, and the politics of crisis in an American city that asks the question: Was this a one-time tragedy, or an appalling trend?

AIRED: July 05, 2020 | 0:56:05

- One of the deadliest heat waves in U.S. history.

- It looked like a war zone.

- The heat wave in Chicago was a natural disaster

that revealed an unnatural one.

- Sexiness for the news media was, it was about the heat,

but the real story is,

why were people in these neighborhoods dying?

- Racism and poverty determined who would live

and die during the heat wave.

- It's not really about the heat.

It's about a lack of compassion on a lot of parts.

female announcer: Award-winning filmmaker

Judith Helfand investigates the politics of disaster.

- What had seemed to be a one-time tragedy in Chicago

all at once became an appalling trend.

- These deeper social fault lines

that make some members of a city vulnerable

and keep others protected and blissfully ignorant.

announcer: "Cooked: Survival by Zip Code"

now, only on "Independent Lens."


[waves crashing]

- What's the best way to prepare for disaster?

It's a question lots of people are asking these days,

as the planet heats up and we find ourselves

facing one unprecedented disaster after another.

- One dollar. One dollar. - Oh, my friend.

You get lucky to get it for one dollar.

[solemn music]

- Lower Manhattan. Staten Island.

[announcement continues indistinctly over P.A. system]


- Personally I'd never really had to grapple

with disaster preparedness

'til Hurricane Sandy was heading towards my hometown.

Are you readyfor this hurricane?

- I got my batteries. I got my flashlights.

I got my candles. I'm good.

- Did you fill your bathtub up? - That I didn't do.

- Do you know why

we're supposedto fill our bathtubs up?

- No, I don't. - I don't either.

If ever there was a moment for an emergency plan

and a well-packed to-go kit, this was it.

But I didn't have either,

so I relied on my ability to go,

to my family in Westchester County...

[knocking] Mom?

18 safe miles from the eye of the storm,

where last-minute preparedness shopping started early.

- I just got lucky on the generator.

I became number 99 of 100.

- There's no more generators.

I was here this morning at 5:30.

- What time were you there?

- I was there at 7:00. - What were you doing?

And that's how I came to find out

that my big brother Alex,

a computer engineer and competitive sailor,

was also a closet disaster master.

- The reason you have to have a generator

is so you can run the sump pump.

Without that, you might as well just kiss your house good-bye.

- How do you run it? - On gas.

- How much do you have? - I'll show you.

We have 10, 20-- we have 25 gallons.

By the way, do you like our escape?

- Are you serious?

Are we allowed to come to you

if you have power and we don't?

- We'll let you. - Okay.

- We can always come get you. That's why the boat--

- In the boat? - Sure.

- You're gonna put Momin that boat?

- If we have to.

- I'm not telling her that.It'll freak her out.

Your son, he has a boat.

In case we can't get out,

he could come and get us.

- [laughs]

He has a boat?

- In the meantime,

evacuations of three buildings...

- Which fortunately we didn't need.

- Four downed power lines in Babylon

with explosive results,

and water poured into the streets

of Great South Bay.

- Electricity was a different story.

- As Long Island got--

- Mom, the lights keep going on and off.

- Mike? You okay?

- Are you okay? - Yeah.

- Okay. - And Judy's with me. I'm fine.

- All right, just let us knowif you need anything.

- Yeah, and Dolores is not home,

and Pat's not home either.

She's in the hospital.

- The water is washing...

- It's your turn. - Oh. Go, go, go.

[soft piano music]

- Safe, cozy, and with very bad letters,

I had plenty of time to think about disaster preparedness.

My mother had her close-knit hallway.

My brother and his family had their generator.

And I had them.

But I didn't always look at disaster

through the lens of privilege or lack of it.

That all started with a book I read about a disaster

that took place in Chicago in July 1995,

one of the deadliest heat waves

in U.S. history so far.

And I had no memory of it.

This was a tragedy that should have seared itself

into the memory of every American,

but it didn't.

And that's what shocked me most of all.

So I tracked down Eric Klinenberg,

the native Chicagoan who wrote the book about the heat wave.

- Disasters are important

not just because they represent extreme cases

but also because, in looking at them closely,

we learn to recognize conditions

that are always present but difficult to perceive.

- That was what was unique

about the heat wave in Chicago.

It was a natural disaster

that revealed an unnatural one

in a way that I'd never really seen,

mainly because I didn't have to.

So I went to Chicago

and drove from the iconic lakefront

to the neighborhoods that had suffered

the most heat deaths in 1995.

It was obvious something devastating had happened here,

but I was pretty sure

it had nothing to do with the weather.

This disaster was man-made.

- The sun is cooking the center of the country.

All week, roads have been buckling.

People have been baking.

The mercury is showing no mercy.

[indistinct chatter]

- For stores selling fans and air conditioners,

many customers are trying to bring them home tonight

to get them going in time

for tomorrow's triple-digit temperatures.

- When I started making this film,

Eric Klinenberg handed me a worn VHS tape

filled with news footage of the 1995 heat wave,

and I watched it over and over.

- The sun sets tonight on one of the hottest days

in Chicago history: an official high

of 104 degrees at O'Hare Airport.

- It's hot. It's hot out there.

Let's--we all walk out there.

It's very, very, very hot.

We go to extremes in Chicago,

and that's why people love Chicago.

We go to extremes.

[siren wailing]

- The mayor's clever play on the word "extremes"

took on a new meaning the next day

when, all of a sudden, hospitals were overflowing

with heat-related illnesses.

And then people started to die.

[somber music]

- It was a very hot night,

and when I called my grandmother,

she didn't answer the phone.

So I rushed right over here,

and I walked into the room,

and I saw my grandmother lying across the bed faceup.

I looked over at the window, and it was nailed shut,

and I thought, "What would make her think

"that by putting a nail in a window

"would make her feel safe?

Why wasn't this window open?"

I walked to the ambulance, and I looked in,

and I saw these bodies in there,

and they just laid her on top of the other bodies,

like she was a quart of wood.

And then I thought, "Well, does that mean

"that they're gonna go get other bodies

and lay the bodies on top of my grandmother?"

[dramatic music]

- Well, the chief medical examiner tells us tonight

that at least 50 more bodies await examination tomorrow.

The crush was so intense, a refrigerated truck

was brought in to store bodies until staff could get to them.

We just saw five more refrigerated trucks go by us.

Apparently the one refrigerated truck

they've got back there is already full,

but they're now discovering the bodies that were dead

on Thursday and Friday, as they begin to decompose.

- There had been no announcements on the news,

no discussion from the city, no checking on people.

But the minute you see in the paper

or on the news-- wherever I saw it first--

that there were refrigerated trucks,

that means there's so many dead bodies

that the coroner doesn't have room for 'em anymore.

That's enough!

Right there, you know you were in trouble.

- They were doing autopsies around the clock.

- You almost had to runa gauntlet

to walk through anywhere

to avoid touching a body.

It looked like a war zone.

- I had to get up in a truck and basically had to go through

every remain, checking toe tags,

until we could find the persons that we were coming to get.

So in the event of someone that I was picking up,

it was, like, maybe a couple of people on top,

so you had to just try to move them over.

It was just--it was-- yeah, it was sad, really.

It was a sight.

- Saturday morning, I came in, and we had 87 cases,

Sunday morning, we had 83 cases.

And today we have 117.

Now, our average is 17.

So what we're seeing here

is, we're seeing an excess mortality.

- We cannot say exactly how many deaths

are a direct result of the heat,

but we know that the number of nonviolent deaths

over the last four days continue to climb.

In the last four days--

- "Nonviolent deaths"?

I had to stop and replay the mayor's comment

a few times over

to try and wrap my head around what he meant by that term.

- But the number of nonviolent deaths continue to climb.

- Because being cooked to death behind closed doors

seemed to me to be a pretty violent way to die.

- Oh, when you hear three-- well, when you have 339 people,

there's a lot of people dead.

I mean, that's a lot of people.

- Mrs. Crockett?

- The crisis intervention workers

respond to calls of concern.

A 60-year-old woman hadn't been heard from.

- Take all this away from here, and open this window up.

- Well, I'm on the first floor.

- Are you afraid of somebody

throwing some bricksor something?

- They'll come in.

- You have a screen here,don't you, dear?

- Yes, what will a sharp knife do to a screen?

- Yes, it will.

- As I watched this agonizing choice

between staying safe and staying cool,

I thought about the nine refrigerated trucks

that were parked outside the county morgue for weeks,

filled with hundreds of deceased Chicago residents,

and how ironic it was that they finally got

the air-conditioning they needed

while awaiting autopsy.

- Cooler air came rushing in across the country today

after a brutal heat wave.

Many are wondering tonight,

how could heat kill so many people?

- The sexiness for the news media was,

it was about the heat,

but the real story is,

why were people in these neighborhoods dying?

People weren't dying on the North Side.

People weren't dying in the Gold Coast.

People were dying on the South and West Sides.

- Why is it that people die

during an extreme weather event?

- Well, I think, you know, people die from the heat

for two highly correlated reasons.

If you have a preexisting condition

that's already weakened your body,

then clearly it's gonna be easier

for the heat to kill you.

And the second and intimately related factor is,

they're not able to defend themselves against the heat,

and that defense could be

in terms of opening their windows,

and in poor, vulnerable communities,

people don't want to open their windows.

It could be by turning on the air conditioner,

and in vulnerable communities,

people don't have air-conditioning.

And it could also be going outside their house

and going to an institution

where there is air-conditioning.

For example, a public library

might have air-conditioning,

or even the lobby of an apartment house

might have air-conditioning.

And vulnerable communities

tend not to have those as well.

- We've offered that,but there's not a great number

of people who have come inand taken advantage of it.

There's really very littleexplanation for it.

- Thank you. - Thank you.

- Thank you.

- Do you think this has anything to do with race?

- I think that...

I have to go with-- there's a saying in Chicago

that's, everything is about race.

You don't have to be poor to be black.

You don't have to be black to be poor.


- Just as many Chicagoans were starting to realize

that the black community had suffered

a disproportionate number of deaths,

Mayor Daley went on the offensive.

- Daley pointed a finger of blame

at some of the families of the senior citizens

who died all alone in the hellish heat.

- We have to appeal to all the family members

of seniors to call, go over there,

see their mother or father

or their aunt and uncle.

That is a must.

- I think there was denial.

A lot of the heads of statewere in denial

about what was going on, you see,

because it didn't touch them directly.

- Do you think it's really about the heat?

- No.

No, it's just aboutthe lack of--

oh, God help me,I don't want to say that.

- [whispering] Just say it.

- [laughs]"Just say it."

It's about a lack of compassionon a lot of parts.

I think that there is no need for poverty,

as much poverty...

- As we have. - In our community...

- Right. - As there is.

- Even after the heat broke,

the death count continued to climb.

And when it reached 525,

the mayor shifted from blaming the families

to questioning the medical examiner's numbers.

- Can't attribute it all to heat.

You can't! It's impossible.

- The mayor thinks these figures should be examined.

The medical examiner's office

thinks that they will withstand scrutiny.

We would be delighted to have these figures examined.

- I knew that people

would be dying throughout the city of Chicago

but dying in hospitals, and the doctors would say,

"Well, I've been treating this guy

"for heart disease for three years,

and now he died of heart disease."

And so never would the word "heat"

appear anywhere on the death certificate.

- So are you suggesting that there were actually

more deaths than are accounted for?

- Oh, yes.

I couldn't see how the number wouldn't be bigger than 525,

so we added up the total number

of people who died during July,

and we subtracted this baseline

of the expected number of deaths per day,

and the number came out to be 726.

[cursor beeping]

And so they're arguing about whether 525 was too big,

and I now am saying it's much too small.

- The immensity of the death toll

got summed up by this image.

Not what you expect to see in a suburban cemetery

in America's heartland.

- 41 people were buried

in a potter's field near Chicago today,

forgotten victims of this summer's

deadly heat wave.

Their bodies had lain since July

in the county morgue, unclaimed.

- We had the memorial service here.

Claude Sanders.

William Reedsville.

Lydia Payne.

John Kensinger.

Joe Stone.

Helen Stegman.

Richard Jones.

Jose Melina.


[dramatic theme music playing]

- There are some stunning new figures

from the Chicago Health Department,

dramatically increasing the already tragic death toll

from July's heat wave,

adding more than 200 to the original total.

- The final death tally: 739,

the equivalent of two jumbo jets crashing in midair.

Did you feel a sense of outrage

at that number when it came out?

- I want to answer this very carefully.

James Baldwin said to be black in America

is to be enraged almost all of the time,

and so in that spirit,

I'm enraged almost all of the time.

I am of that generation, so yes, I was enraged.

Was I surprised or shocked?

No, I know what happens during heat waves,

and I could see that the city was not responding accordingly.

And even if the city had responded

in a more appropriate way,

we would have seen differences,

hopefully not as great, between poor communities

that are under-resourced and communities

that are better resourced.

- This is a map that has two things

going on at the same time.

We've put the circles in those communities

that have the highest poverty rates,

and then we've shaded in the communities

that had the highest mortality rates from the heat.

And as you can see,

they're almost perfect overlaps.

So the question is, did people die of the heat,

or did they die of the social conditions

in these neighborhoods, and the answer is both.

I mean, had the heat not occurred,

they wouldn't have died that week.

That's for sure.

But they would have died too soon anyway.

- I mean, the beginning of this project,

I decided I was gonna kind of adapt this phrase

that the coroners use, which is to say

that we study death

in order to better understand and protect life.

- While researching his book, Eric Klinenberg discovered

that Cook County had collected the personal effects

of the unclaimed heat victims.

Their things are now kept in boxes

in a sprawling storage facility.

- A very small bed.

I don't see any windows.

You can tell it's a very tiny room.

And look at this contrast

of the decorated war veteran

and the 85-year-old senior citizen.

It reminds us how easy it is, in some way,

to fall through the cracks

and go from being an honored soldier

or a close relative to being someone

who is discovered alone on a hot summer day.

These files are full of stories like this.

- When it came time for Mayor Daley and his team

to take the life-and-death lessons

from the 1995 heat wave, they didn't concern themselves

with human stories or data-driven maps.

Instead they created a task force.

- When the mayor organized a commission

to study the heat wave and release a report,

it said things like, "Every neighborhood in Chicago

was affected by the heat wave."

It's true, but it's far more true

for some areas than others,

and that kind of language just obscures

what's happening in the city.

It makes it impossible for us

to understand what happened here.

It's a story about these deeper social fault lines

that make some members of a city vulnerable

and keep others protected and blissfully ignorant

about what's happening

to people who live quite close to them.

[percussive music]

- We want to make sure that all Chicagoans

take appropriate precautions

for dealing with extreme heat and humidity.

[indistinct chatter]

- Ever since 1995,

when the temperatures start to rise,

the city rolls out its heat emergency plan,

which, over the years, has become a model

for other cities also struggling to adapt

to an ever-warming world.

The plan includes a multimillion-dollar

emergency command center,

reverse 911 calls, and vigorous public messaging.

- We really need each and every neighbor.

You know where these seniors are.

If you cannot reach out to them,

would you please call 311 and give us their address?

You could literally save a life.

- What do you think of the heat emergency plan?

- I don't--I don't know what I think of that.

I mean, you know, I mean...

[chuckles] We could call it

a poverty emergency plan instead

or, you know, a remedying social evils plan.

The underlying dynamic in those same communities,

which determined who would live and die

during the heat wave,

of course continue to exist now.

- Do you think they're addressing that?

- Do I think the city is addressing

the extreme poverty in communities of color

in Chicago?

Is that what you're asking me?


Don't be ridiculous.

[indistinct chatter]

[upbeat music]

[indistinct shouting]

- What's good? [laughs]

- Here you go right here!

- Turning it back off now.

- Why y'all wantto turn it off for?

[indistinct chatter]

- A decade after the heat wave,

Eric Klinenberg was still trying to get people

to learn the core lesson of that disaster.

- Ten years ago, more than 700 Chicagoans

died in the heat wave,

but you say that's not really the entire story?

What you wanted to know were the underlying

social, human dimensions to this, right?

- That's right, we have this term,

a natural disaster, that we're all familiar with.

There's certainly nothing natural

about the way they died.

What I'm more concerned about is our collective failure

to address that everyday crisis,

the disaster in slow motion, if you will.

And my biggest concern now is that if we refuse

to come to terms with this crisis,

we'll doom ourselves to experience it again.

[dramatic music]

- And we did.

Just six weeks after that interview,

the crisis we refused to come to terms with in Chicago

repeated itself in New Orleans and all along the Gulf Coast.

Like millions of others, I spent that Labor Day weekend

watching whole neighborhoods disappear underwater.

- We're gonna talk about something else

before the show's over too,

and that's the big elephant in the room:

the race and economic class of most of the victims,

which the media hasn't discussed much at all.

- What had seemed to me to be a one-time tragedy in Chicago

all at once became an appalling trend.

And this movie, which started out

being about one specific heat disaster,

turned into something more complicated and uncomfortable,

about the impact of generations' worth

of racism and denial.

- What's the guesstimate cost of rebuilding those levees?

- The bill is $2.9 billion, which will give us--

send us a long way to, you know,

repairing and upgrading the levees,

making them real Category 3 protection,

which apparently they weren't, we learned the hard way.

- Back in Chicago,

where it was predicted that by 2050,

the weather would feel more like Baton Rouge,

Mayor Daley inaugurated his official climate action plan,

starting with a $2.5-million project

built on top of City Hall.

- So what you'll see behind me here

is actually the green roof on City Hall.

We're 12 stories above the city,

and as you can tell, it's kind of like a prairie.

I mean, you can hear the crickets.

You can see the butterflies.

There are birds that live up here.

So what we've done here-- we've created

an urban heat island map.

We can see the hot spots,

and then we plant trees in those areas,

'cause one mature tree has the air-conditioning effect

of 12 room-size air-conditioners.

So these strategies provide real cooling of the city.

- You know, we're pretty far away from City Hall.

You know, I don't know about any rooftop gardens

out here.

This is the block that I lived on

from the time I was 1 or 2 years old till I was about 14.

Used to be a church here that burned down.

Used to be a house here.

This house was next door to where we lived,

and we lived right here.

And this whole block was full of houses.

Summer day like today,

when I was growing up around here,

would be full of people, kids playing,

adults coming to and from work.

It was just a vibrant place to be.

There were two movie theaters.

There was a Sears store.

Hillman's grocery store.

I used to get the list from my mom,

and I'd walk up here and get whatever she wanted.

It's just been an incredible 50-plus years

of watching what happens to a community.

If the heat wave happened when I was growing up,

I think the outcome would have been a lot different.

When it got really hot, people would sleep

on the back porch or sleep in the park.

People felt much safer.

I mean, imagine going from feeling

like you can go sleep in the park

to feeling like you can't even put a fan in your window.

- Yeah.

Just acres of vacant land.

Acres of potential.

- Orrin told me that much of the vacant land

on the South and West Sides of the city

can be traced back to another map...

this one created

by the Federal Housing Administration

in 1940.

The neighborhoods where black people had settled

were shaded in red and declared ineligible

for federally insured loans.

The only way people could buy a home

was through a practice called contract buying.

- White speculators bought homes,

then resold them to black families

for two or three times their value,

but the black family didn't own the house

until they fully paid it off.

- If I have you in a contract, and things go along

and you get laid off from your job

and you miss a month, you could do it on one month--

or miss two months-- then you're out of that house.

I evict you, and then I can recontract

that same house to another family.

- Most people had to work two or three jobs

to meet the payments.

Often they couldn't afford to maintain the houses,

so a lot of those structures needed to be torn down.

- So when the federal government made it illegal

to give mortgages in the black communities,

it was a political decision

to disinvest from those communities.

You have banks making a decision:

"Your house isn't worth replacing the windows,

"so we're not gonna give you a loan to replace your windows.

"We're not gonna give anyone a loan

to buy your house from you."

That's a disinvestment.

"We're gonna close these stores and move them,"

and that happened with changes in manufacturing.

You don't have steelworkers in Englewood anymore.

You don't have people working

at Campbell's soup factory anymore.

Then what happens is, your community sinks.

It doesn't happen overnight,

but it happens, certainly, at a pace.

- Come all on in, kids. Come on.

- All right, you ready? - Mm-hmm.

- Colean and Jeremiah Scott were not even born

when the red lines were drawn around their neighborhood,

but the repercussions are all around them.

- This is the first one.

- This is the first one right here.

- This is the first one. - That's the second one.

- This is the second one.

- And then you can just count 'em as you go.

- That's number three.

And it's right next to the school.

If my daughter was to go to school here,

she would have to walk past

all these abandoned buildings...

- Just to get to school. - Just to get to the school.

Wait a minute!

- This one here. - Now, did you see that?

This building right here.

Come on, now!

A school surrounded by abandoned buildings?

- Yeah, come on. - Come on.

- It's just, you don't really even...

think about it

or really comprehend it, I guess,

until you have to explain it to somebody else, you know?

Then it's, like...

it's just right in your face, you know?

And I was upset about those right there.

Look at that.

Boarded up.

All--the school is surrounded.

What do you think about when you see abandoned property?

It's abandoned, forgot about,

left out, like...

[child shouts]

- None of this is rocket science.

We all know what it takes to make a healthy neighborhood.

It doesn't require you to have mansions on the street.

It requires you to have the grocery stores,

the coffee shops, the restaurants,

the beauty parlors, the barbershops.

These are all institutions that help make streets safe.

They provide places, certainly in the wintertime

and summertime, for cooling and heating.

- This map is, in a sense, an exemplar or a model

of all of those issues coming together in one place.

For example, communities that have no supermarkets in them.

If you map out vacant lots, violent crime rates,

diabetes, breast cancer,

and on and on and on...

and so map after map after map shows the distribution

of the highest mortality and morbidity

throughout the city.

- Let me be really clear. Racism is not a disaster.

It's something that human beings invented

and created and keep healthy.

Segregation is something human beings invented,

specific human beings, for specific purposes.

The health inequities that exist are not accidents.

They're created by people.

- So the slow-motion disaster in Chicago

was the direct result of public policies

that effectively divided the city into haves

and have-nots.

And it was precisely these life-and-death inequalities

that motivated Dr. Whitman to step down from his post

as the city's chief epidemiologist

to lead the Sinai Urban Health Institute.

- We've done study after study and published it

in all of our most prestigious journals

showing not only that black people and other poor people

have much worse health but, in fact,

that the differences in measures of health

are growing worse everywhere we look in Chicago.

That's happening because the rich are getting richer,

the poor are getting poorer,

and the poor are not only getting poorer,

but they're getting sicker as well.

Life expectancy in the Loop,

where we're sitting now, is 81 years.

And for black communities throughout Chicago,

it was 65 years.

16 years' difference in life expectancy,

and you could walk from one community to the other.

One of the strongest correlates of bad health

for black people that's been shown

over and over in the literature is segregation.

We are one of the most segregated cities

in the United States.

If black people in Chicago had the same death rates

as white people, 3,200 fewer black people,

in just one year, would have died.

Now, just think about our response to 9/11.

Literally billions,

even trillions of dollars spent,

and yet here's 3,000 deaths in just one year.

Ten years, that's 32,000 deaths,

just from racism, in the city of Chicago.

[jet engines roaring]

- Watching the annual air show

along Chicago's majestic skyline

celebrating the military daredevils

who are poised to protect us,

I couldn't help but think about the disparity

Dr. Whitman had outlined.

3,200 deaths from terrorism

are considered a national disaster,

but 3,200 deaths from treatable diseases

taking place in neighborhoods

just due south and west from here

are barely considered.

And that's when I started Googling "disaster"...

Which led me to disaster prevention...

- To guarantee good health, you need clean water.

- It filters about a gallon every five minutes.

- To "disaster preparedness,"

which I soon learned is one of our nation's

most dynamic growth industries.

- Let's start off by talking about emergency food,

packaged to last 25 years.

- And finally "disaster preparedness Chicago"...

[helicopter rotors whirring]

Which is how I learned that Cook County

was about to show off its latest innovations

in government-funded disaster preparedness.

- This year, Cook County will share $47.7 million

in urban area security initiative grant funds.

- What you're gonna see is just a handful of resources

that are mainly paid for through federal grants.

- Over here is a mobile ventilation unit.

We can clear an area unbelievably efficiently

using these machines.

Mobile warehouse.

Seven semitrailerseach with 18,000 items

of things we neededfor the first 72 hours.

Unified command vehicle.

- I started getting into this whole question about disaster

because of the 1995 heat wave.

- A lot of things that are in place today

were a result of lessons

learned from the 1995 heat wave.

If you remember 1995, we were keeping bodies

in refrigerated food trucks.

We now have a vehicle that's specifically made

for this task.

The victim would be put into this vehicle.

We can hold 27 victims.

We can chill this unit down to 32 degrees.

- Which is basicallya refrigerated

morgue on wheels?

- Yeah, I wouldn't put that in the press.

I-I'd flower it up a little better, but yes.

- What would you say?

- That's a victim containment system.

- That victim containment system

was just one of many big, shiny new trucks

at this county event.

Multiply that by 3,142 counties

or county equivalents in the United States

currently gearing up for future disasters,

and you start to get the picture.

Disaster preparedness

is a very well-resourced endeavor.

But what if it was possible to repurpose

this massive infrastructure, which already operates

on local, regional, and national levels,

and put it in service of communities

struck by unnatural disasters?

That was the question on my mind when I found out

about a disaster preparedness conference

taking place just two states, one floodplain,

and one seismic fault line away from Chicago,

in Paducah, Kentucky.

- It's all about disaster preparedness.

We're talking about ice storms,

a big earthquake that could happen here

on the New Madrid Fault.

We've got people from FEMA here,

from the Red Cross, from the USGS.

- Judith Helfand.

- Yes. - All right.

- [laughs]

- This is the map of the areathat we were covering.

It's-- - Six Midwest states,

where the New Madrid earthquake zone is.

- If it was really bad,

where would they get hit on your shirt?

- Oh, it'd be, like, the whole Midwest.

All the bridges you crossed getting here will all be gone.

- If you don't know what the plan is,

you may not have a plan.

I'm not here to scare you to death.

I can, but I won't.

- Catastrophic ice is pretty much the worst.

- Lightning has killed at least 67 people in the United States.

[electricity buzzing]

- After a day and a half of lectures,

keynotes, and workshops, one thing was pretty clear.

Disaster preparedness is a luxury.

It's for communities who are stable enough

in the present to worry about the future.

- I've got a preparedness kit.

- But what if you can't even conceive of a to-go kit

because you need a "to get through the week" kit?

This is the disaster that I started working on.

It's a heat death map.

These gray areas are the poorest

sort of neighborhoods in the city.

- Mm-hmm. - So here's the big question.

What if we redefine disaster as extreme pernicious poverty?

- Hmm.

- I didn't want to make anyone uncomfortable...

[both chuckle]

But, frankly, who's comfortable

talking about race and class?

And even though I knew I might be putting some people

on the spot, I couldn't resist trying.

Isn't there a way to just think about economic development

as disaster preparedness?

- If you're asking me, can emergency management

solve the poverty issues, I can tell you, no,

'cause the systems that we have now are all about,

we've had a major disaster, come back in,

and restore that community to like it was.

In fact, the FEMA regulations say, "Like it was."

Empty lots, this mile of abandoned...

- I wondered about that term, "like it was."

Why not "better than before" or "prepared for the future"?

So when General Heltzel invited me

to a federally funded seven-state

weeklong disaster preparedness exercise,

I went.


The mission: to be ready for the massive earthquake

that's expected to hit the Midwest

and simulate a coordinated response.

The last major earthquake? 1812.

- Kilo Yankee four hotel Charlie.


- Kentucky, KF alpha foxtrotalpha four zero whiskey, over.

- We've had a 7.7 Richter scale earthquake.

You can see the damage is particularly intensive

here in the Jackson Purchase region.

- We had 625 casualties.

275,000 seeking shelter.

- So we're sending down a million MREs

and a million bottles of water.

- Medical supplies,

food, water, tentage, whatever the civilians need.

- We got a notification from one of our operators

saying that there was a lot of damage in Memphis.

- Exercise message.

- Exercise message.

- I did forget.

I was too busy marveling at our nation's ability

and seemingly unconditional commitment

to marshal resources, rebuild infrastructure,

and ensure that citizens are fed, housed,

and provided medical care...

that is, as long as it's in the wake

of a natural disaster.

- We had more than 10,000 people participate

in this exercise yesterday.


- My idea wasn't to send in the National Guard,

but with a minor tweak to the term "disaster,"

maybe this well-funded federal agency could invest

in the long-term resilience of the vulnerable communities

they're actually preparing to rescue.

- The trick ends up being not what you're chasing here

by turning that into a disaster, 'cause it's not--

- Well, it is a disaster. - No, it's a crisis.

And it's one of the negative parts of the real world,

and where I come from,

you know, nobody gets a free pass.

You have to take-- you reach down,

grab yourself by the bootstraps,

and let's go.

I will say you've piqued my interest.

I'm thinking-- my brain is trying

to connect some dots, but I can't get to where

you want to mobilize this agency

or this organization in advance.

It just doesn't work that way.

Now, if you change the laws and we get people to agree

that we want to change the world we live in?

Kind of the holy grail, right?

Go for it. I'm right behind you.

[solemn music]

- I left Frankfort, Kentucky, and headed south

towards the Tennessee border

to get a good look at the New Madrid fault line:

a disaster in waiting that might not,

despite all of this preparation,

even happen in our lifetime.

But of course, I couldn't see anything.

How did we get here, to a place

where so many people believe that if you're poor,

it's because you didn't pull hard enough

on your own bootstraps?

- So what you're struggling with is,

why are we spending so much money

on these low-probability events

when we have people dying like flies all around us

and that money could be helping people now?

- Right. - Is that it?

- Yes. - Yeah.


Yeah, I mean, you're right to see that

as an unreasonable

allocation of resources, 'cause it is.

In order to get help from the federal government,

you typically have to make some showing that whatever it is

that has happened to you is not your fault.

And as a result of that,

we pay a lot of attention in this country

to how people came to be in need in the first place.

And their claims are discredited in our system

by the sense that they could have

or should have helped themselves.

But that is our history and our tradition.

[indistinct chatter]

- What happened to number one?

- Number one is right here. - Oh.

- Watching this group of Englewood elders

line up at 7:00 a.m. to get help

with their energy bills

made our history and our tradition

seem not only absurd to me but criminal.

- Take your time.

- Every year, a onetime federally funded subsidy

of $150 is available for those who qualify...

as long as the money doesn't run out.

- Number ten.

- You need your light bill, your gas bill,

and take those documents out.

Hold them in your hand now.

- They had a cooling program, and then they ran out of money,

so that cooling program lasted about two or three days.

Many people did not get help who needed it.

But there are more than a hundred intake sites

in the city like ours here,

so there's hundreds of people applying at the same time.

So that money just goes like that.

- How old was he?

- He was 58. He was 58.

- I'm sorry. - Mm-hmm.

- You can tell a lot about what we care about

by where we're putting our money.

People want those resources to be at standby

in case they are experiencing an earthquake

or a fire or a flood or a hurricane,

because they can imagine that happening to them.

A white person cannot easily imagine what it is

to be a person of color in a community

that doesn't have access to good food or medical care.

- Have you ever had a mammogram?

- No, no.

- Are you interestedin having a mammogram?

- No. - Okay.

Is there any specific reason?You mind me asking?

- No, I just don't...

want to have one.

I just--I got plenty going in my life.

- Too much already.

- Yeah, that's enough. - Okay.

- I'm uninsured. - Okay.

You don't have to worry about that.

We have state-funded programs that will pay for the cost.

- When the last timeyou had a mammogram?

- What I came to learn is this:

communities that are most vulnerable every day

are forced to rely on their own ingenuity

and very meager resources to respond to the crisis

that most everyone else ignores,

like the community health workers

from the Sinai Urban Health Institute,

who spend their days reaching out to women

who suffer breast cancer deaths at a rate 40% higher

than the white women on the other side of town.

- Every day, I go into an exam room,

and I work with people that have medical conditions,

much of which could have been prevented or at least made

much easier to deal with if they had

the structural conditions they need to stay healthy.

- Which is a problem that Orrin Williams

and Chicago's first-ever urban organic farm,

Growing Home, were trying to help tackle.

Someone said to me it's easier

to buy a gun around here than a tomato.

- I wouldn't say that,

although it's true.

Standing where we are now-- let me see.

Where would you go get a tomato?

Okay, I have to think about that long and hard.

Some people describe communities on the South Side

as food deserts.

The problem in our communities is, there's food there,

but it's low-quality.

[cash register beeping]

[indistinct chatter]

- Do what I tell you, now. - Okay.

- Didn't I call you,

and I told you to comedo what I want?

- Hey, the vegetable man is here!

- How much is those? - These here are 75 cents.

- Growing Home is responding to multiple problems,

not just the lack of fresh affordable vegetables

and the disease that goes with it

but job training for people who've served time in prison

and the isolation of seniors,

who often feel at risk in their own communities.

On top of that, the gardens are beautiful

and can even help cool the neighborhood,

all of which makes a difference

in the midst of any disaster.

Would you call this a heat emergency plan?

- No, I think the term "human emergency"

is the most appropriate term.

- I left Orrin feeling somewhat hopeful.

- This one, you'd never like it.

- And then, about two miles away...

- Take this home.

- On the other side of Englewood,

I saw this disaster unfolding.

- Stop! Come on, stop!

- Come on, where are y'all going?

- Anybody that can walk, walk towards me!

[percussive music]

- We got number 26.

- Abrasions, left arm, left hand.

Puncture wound to the right abdomen.

- Chicago firefighters are working around the clock

preparing for a massive tornado.

It's a drill to simulate

a tornado wiping out part of the South Side.

- This rare training drill was made possible

by a $250,000 Homeland Security grant.

They're drilling in Englewood,

which has become rather notorious

as one of the most dangerous neighborhoods

in the city of Chicago,

and this is actually a good opportunity for them

to show off how great they are at strategic planning

in the event of a disaster.

It's kind of neat, right, guys?

- Yeah, it really is. - Mm-hmm.

- Thank you, Tammy. - All right.

- I couldn't believe what I was watching:

a lavishly funded disaster drill

taking place at a former public housing complex

literally on top of the disaster in slow motion.

[somber music]

- All right, then we're gonna put some straps on you, okay?

[saw buzzing]

- I'm not suggesting we do away

with disaster preparedness training.

No one wants EMTs and firefighters

Googling how to use the Jaws of Life

while trying to cut someone out of a car.

But I looked up deaths from tornados in Chicago,

and the average is about one person a year...

while some 3,000 people die each and every year

from preventable diseases

within about a five-mile radius of this drill.

It had never been more obvious to me how deeply flawed

and immoral our national priorities are.

[stark music]

I started this film questioning

our very definition of disaster,

and I'm ending it

convinced that if we just enlarged that definition,

we could address the underlying conditions

that are literally killing people every day.

Because the word "disaster"

typically moves people to respond quickly,

with courage, compassion, and cold, hard cash.

And if we responded to slow-motion disaster

the way we do a sudden natural one,

the odds of saving a life,

just in the city of Chicago,

would be at least 3,200 to 1,

no matter the weather.

So what's the best way to prepare for disaster

or, for that matter, recover from one?

[fireworks booming]

I guess it depends on where you live

and the kind of world we want to live in.

[booming continues]

[lively music]



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