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For heat's victims, a quiet death

Officials say many were elderly, living on the margins and alone.

September 06, 2007|Tami Abdollah, Carla Hall and Hector Becerra | Times Staff Writers

Twenty-nine Southern Californians are believed to have died as a result of the recent heat wave, officials said, with most of the victims fitting within the familiar patterns of heat-wave deaths.

Many, but not all, were elderly. Many lived on the margins, unable or unwilling to spend the money to cool their homes. Some were isolated or fiercely independent, refusing or unable to leave their homes.

Some victims had contact with concerned family members and neighbors during the long, hot holiday weekend. But in the end, they decided to stick it out.

Most died alone.

Los Angeles County officials are investigating 16 deaths as heat-related.

Nearby counties are reporting at least 13 deaths as heat-related, with seven victims in Imperial County, five in San Bernardino County and one in Riverside County. Officials said the total may increase as more autopsies are performed.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday, September 07, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 42 words Type of Material: Correction
Heat deaths: A graphic in Thursday's Section A explaining death from heatstroke omitted the third of three factors that the medical examiner relies on to determine if a death is heat-related. It is: Can the autopsy rule out other causes of death?

State health officials and advocates for the elderly have called heat waves "silent natural disasters" that reach into the homes of the vulnerable and strike them down outside of public view.

"These deaths are an invisible danger," said Eric Klinenberg, professor of sociology at New York University and author of "Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago." "It's different than a tornado, literally whipping through town."

After more than 140 elderly people died in California during last year's heat wave, officials created phone trees, public education programs, cooling centers and early heat warning systems to reach the most vulnerable.

Mark Horton, director of the California Department of Public Health, said the effort had saved lives but acknowledged that the loss of life in this summer's heat wave underscores the limits of what officials can do.

"Every one of those deaths was regrettable, and we'd like to think every one of them is preventable," he said. "But we know individuals will continue to make unfortunate choices, individuals will misjudge their vulnerability to the heat, and accidents will happen."

Before Dorothy McGlothan, 85, died in her Pasadena apartment, she had told concerned relatives that she needed only a fan to stay cool. Authorities said when they found her, the temperature in her apartment was 115 degrees..

In a Valley Village apartment complex, mourning neighbors wondered why an elderly couple -- Menahen Lugassi, 82, and Dolores del Valle, 87 -- who were found dead didn't use their functioning air conditioner.

Medical and psychiatric illnesses can exacerbate an unwillingness to seek a cooler environment, health experts said.

Hannah Balter, 45, who lived with her parents on North Orlando Avenue in Los Angeles' Fairfax district, died of apparent heat-related causes.

Her brother, Irwin Balter, described the former UCLA graduate student and teaching assistant as "brilliant, very witty." But he said she suffered from obsessive-compulsive disorder, and had become increasingly reclusive in recent years.

"We were attempting to get some medical care for her," Balter said. "She was a very private person. I became aware that she was leaving the house less and less."

When a neighbor learned from Balter's parents on Tuesday that their daughter had died, she reacted with surprise. "I said, 'I didn't know you had a daughter,' " said the woman, who would not give her name.

Balter said he had been trying to persuade his sister to move out.

Of the 16 suspected heat death victims in L.A. County, at least 10 were older than 50. Seven of the 10 were found in their homes and two in cars they apparently lived in.

In San Bernardino County, several people are believed to have died in the desert from exposure.

In Imperial County, two illegal immigrants died after crossing the U.S.-Mexico border over the weekend.

But, coroner's officials agree, heat waves hit the elderly the hardest.

"A lot of these people, the elderly especially. . . they've lived here all their lives and they don't think the heat's going to bother them," Imperial County Deputy Coroner Henry Proo said.

"When your electricity costs as much as your food does, and that's the only amount of money you have coming in, a lot of people around here choose to eat rather than to stay cool," he said.

According to Southern California Edison spokesman Paul Klein, it costs customers about $230 per month to run a three-ton air conditioner to cool a 1,500-square-foot home during a heat wave (with the unit on 18 hours daily). That breaks down to about 14 cents per kilowatt hour, or $7.70 a day, he said.

Programs to help low-income residents pay for their energy are available, but they don't cover the full cost of service. Edison's CARE program, for example, offers a 20% discount only on monthly bills.

On Carmona Avenue in the Mid-City area of Los Angeles, residents said they never worried about Urel Charles Dujon, 77. "We never worried about him, because he looked so good," said Martina Ruiz, 41, who lives in the back unit of the triplex that Dujon lived in.

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