Cooked: Survival by Zip Code

A new documentary, Cooked: Survival by Zip Code, is now streaming on PBS. Directed and produced by Judith Helfand, the film is an adaption of Eric Klinenberg’s first book, Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago.

Cooked “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.”

Helfand describes in a separate interview how the process of making the film determined its direction, in a way she did not anticipate. Originally it was meant to be about one extreme weather event (during which temperatures were in the 100s in the day, fell only to the low 80s at night, and the humidity was high), and its effect on the most vulnerable in the city.

But Helfand realized the heat wave and its victims were representative of global concerns, as climate change and inequality made for more human disasters, as with Katrina.

Finally, she came to understand that her thesis was actually something like this: Policies should be changed so government can direct more of its tremendous resources from natural-disaster preparedness to alleviation of “unnatural disasters”—the inequality, poverty, and health issues that kill 3,000 people in one year in Chicago alone (1,833 died in Katrina).

She calls this “the morality of our national priorities.”

One interviewee, Andy Nebel, then a reporter for ABC News, says, “Sexiness for the news media [in the Chicago heat wave] 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 on the Gold Coast. They were dying on the south and west sides.”

“There’s a saying in Chicago: everything is about race,” says the intake person from the Medical Examiner’s office, who had to deal with the corpses—so many they had to be stored in refrigerated semis.

During the crisis, Mayor Richard M. Daley tried to lay the blame for high mortality rates on black families, saying they should take better care of their elders and check in with them more. He also criticized the Cook County Medical Examiner, saying there was no way that many died from the heat. The Medical Examiner, Dr. Ed Donoghue, pushed back and said the figure was too low by hundreds—and had evidence of it. It became clear the victims did not have air conditioning, could not afford to run it, and were afraid to open windows.

“Do you really think it’s about the heat?” Helfand asks Geraldine Flowers, Church Elder, Sweet Holy Baptist Church. Flowers whispers, “No.” She smiles sadly. “No. It’s just about the lack of—oh god help me—I don’t want to say that. Let’s just say, it’s about a lack of compassion on a lot of parts.”

The Daley administration made a City Emergency Heat Plan after the 1995 disaster. Helfand asks Dr. Steve Whitman, Director of Epidemiology, City of Chicago, 1990-2000, what he thinks of it. He tries to be tactful but snorts.

“We could call it a Poverty Emergency Plan instead, or the 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.”

He has a hard time not laughing bitterly. “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.”

Whitman shows a series of maps that overlay neatly. The heat deaths were in poor neighborhoods that had once been redlined and where disinvestment had been practiced for decades. The maps showed too they are food deserts, filled with vacant lots. They have high rates of gun-related death, diabetes, breast cancer, unemployment, heart disease, school closings, and high-school dropouts. Life expectancy is lowest in the city.

Whitman says the US spent perhaps trillions as a response to 9-11, in which about 3,000 died, but that there are more African-American deaths than that each year in Chicago alone, due to a healthcare gap. In 10 years, that is 32,000 deaths, “just from racism in the City of Chicago,” he says.

In the last third of the film, Helfand attends a conference for disaster preparedness, where people warn of 69 lightning deaths in the US, and other things that might not happen in our lifetimes. Helfand says, “[O]ne thing was pretty clear: disaster preparedness is a luxury. It’s for communities that are stable enough in the present to worry about the future.”

She also attends a FEMA/Army exercise for the next Great New Madrid Earthquake, in which 10,000 people participate, with seemingly unlimited resources and a commitment to housing, food, medical care, and restored infrastructure, “as long as it’s in the wake of a natural disaster.” Helfand tells the general in charge that “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 general actually says that the “crisis” (not disaster) of systemic poverty might be solved better by the poor reaching down and pulling themselves up by their bootstraps. (To be fair, he also says if laws were changed to allow his agency and others to do that work, he would be right there with Helfand.)

Helfand looks finally at a Chicago neighborhood farm. Its master gardener calls the Englewood neighborhood—where the heat wave hit hard—a “human emergency.” Nearby, a $250,000 Homeland Security grant is being used for Chicago emergency services to simulate a tornado at a former public-housing complex. “Victims” get prosthetic wounds and fake blood, and cars are crushed by a backhoe for atmosphere.

Average deaths by tornado in Chicago: one. Meanwhile, 3,000 die every year within a five-mile radius, from preventable health problems.

John Griswold

John Griswold is a staff writer at The Common Reader. His most recent book is a collection of essays, The Age of Clear Profit: Essays on Home and the Narrow Road (UGA Press 2022). His previous collection was Pirates You Don’t Know, and Other Adventures in the Examined Life. He has also published a novel, A Democracy of Ghosts, and a narrative nonfiction book, Herrin: The Brief History of an Infamous American City. He was the founding Series Editor of Crux, a literary nonfiction book series at University of Georgia Press. His work has been included and listed as notable in Best American anthologies.