Doomsday KC

Day by day, the death toll rose, as did the temperature


The Kansas City Star

Disaster almost always strikes hardest at the disadvantaged.

Kansas City’s class divisions likely were widened with each flood that swept over the industrial lowlands. Most homes ruined belonged to people who lacked the means to own pricier high ground far from work. Most jobs lost were in the factories and rail yards.

The killer heat wave of 1980 had a similar effect. It zeroed in on the poor and elderly — especially those without air conditioning and living in high-crime areas.

More than 130 residents died during 17 straight days in which Fahrenheit readings hit triple digits downtown, beginning on the Fourth of July.

Others would have expired had concerned neighbors not tipped authorities to shut-ins.

“We’d walk in on persons sitting in the heat not realizing they were dehydrating,” recalled Alvin Brooks, who directed the office of human relations at City Hall. “Their income was such that they couldn’t afford the higher electric bills” for running air conditioning or even just a fan.

The exact casualty count never will be known. Causes of death can be hard to pin down in the midst of a long encounter with blazing heat.

The website of Kansas City’s Office of Emergency Management cites “an estimated 136 heat-related deaths” in 1980 from “high temperatures that persisted day and night.”

In 1998, a local health department researcher, Jinwen Cai, looked back at the sharp rise in 1980 hospital deaths linked to cardiovascular and respiratory problems. He concluded the heat might have killed more than 200 locally.

Several hundred died across Kansas and Missouri, but urban areas took the brunt. The death rate for nonwhites was three times the rate for whites.

“We’re full here,” said a worker at the Jackson County morgue, gesturing to bodies stacked on the floor in mid-July. The temperature that afternoon reached 109 downtown, as it had on five days the prior week.

Area authorities at this time were responding to a new death every hour, on average.

Common circumstances emerged.

Most victims had lived without air conditioning, which wasn’t unusual in 1980. About 40 percent of Kansas City households then weren’t cooled.

When her fan broke during the heat wave in July 1980, Shirley Huddelston panicked . Fortunately, the Red Cross arrived with a new one to provide some relief for her family. File photo The Kansas City Star

Just as important was where the victims lived. In public housing projects and other high-crime areas, corpses were discovered inside homes where windows had been nailed shut.

To some elderly residents, it didn’t matter that Kansas City firefighters began delivering free window fans. Fearing crime, these victims refused to open windows and doors to let air circulate.

Many who died “were reclusive, living alone and hard to reach because they were out of the mainstream,” said Jackson County’s coroner at the time, Bonita Peterson.

Besides lacking air conditioners, some didn’t have TVs or radios to know where to go for help. The Internet didn’t yet exist.

They couldn’t have known that the Kansas City Police Department had set up a 24-hour Heat Wave Command Post. The phone center offered medical advice, fans and information on temporary shelters to needy residents across five metro counties.

The 1980 heat caused dozens, if not hundreds, of deaths in St. Louis as well. A Missouri law later required health workers to report heatstroke, a practice that continues today.

Kansas City heat doesn’t kill as it used to. Credit air conditioners, the information age or better awareness of those “out of the mainstream,” as the coroner put it back then.

From 2007 through 2014, according to the Kansas City Health Department, heat-related deaths on the Missouri side of the metro area have averaged fewer than eight per year.