'Like being in a hot car': What we know about a rare heat-related death in Peoria County
Peoria County Coroner Jamie Harwood declared 52-year-old Henrietta Moore dead around noon on Thursday.
A building manager discovered Moore's body while checking on her unit at the Lexington Hills Apartments complex.
Harwood said the cause of death was excessive heat exacerbating pre-existing medical conditions. He can't say what condition exactly due to medical privacy regulations, but there are many illnesses made worse by heat.
“When we have somebody who has got any kind of medical conditions, chronic or acute or otherwise, particularly respiratory illnesses, cardiac disease, renal disease, liver disease, things like that,” Harwood said. “Then you add a heat insult to that where you can’t remove yourself from that environment, it’s going to be detrimental.”
During the course of the investigation, Harwood said a building manager informed him Moore's electricity had been disconnected. Ameren contacted the building management to let them know about the change on July 7.
While this past week saw heat indices rise above 100 degrees, a disconnected apartment can become dangerously hot at much lower outside temperatures.
“It’s like being in a hot car,” Harwood said. “How fast the temperature in a car can go up, just being outside in 85 degree heat and how fast that happens. Your temperature can go up in the car to 100 degrees in a matter of 20 minutes.”
Ameren Illinois Communications Director Tucker Kennedy said, as a matter of policy, they don't perform any new utility disconnections in areas under a heat advisory or warning.
“State law basically dictates that energy providers like us can’t disconnect power to any residential customer when temperatures are 95 degrees or higher,” Kennedy said.
But, there's no mechanism in place, on an Ameren policy or legal level, to resume service to disconnected addresses during periods of extreme heat.
Kennedy said the utility provider does take general precautions to keep its infrastructure resilient.
“Wire sizes, transformer sizes, all of those things that are responsible for getting the power to our customers, we have to make sure all of that can operate in any condition,” he said. “And in general, we feel pretty good about the stability of our system and how prepared it is to withstand these really, really hot days.”
But customers in the middle of a disconnect and uncertain circumstances may be left without a lifeline.
Harwood said heat-related deaths are rare in Peoria County.
“It is unusual to have these, because we have so many resources in Peoria and so many connections,” he said. “I think, maybe, we’ve had two or three since I have been in this office in the last seven years.”
The resources Harwood references are "cooling centers." These are public places where people can take a moment to get out of the heat, cool down and fight off the symptoms of heat exhaustion and prolonged exposure.
Most fire and police departments act as cooling stations during regular business hours. Area organizations like the Dream Center, the Peoria Rescue Mission, Advanced Medical Transport and the Pekin Outreach center also offer cooling centers. Some of them are open 24/7. You can find a list of cooling centers provided by the city of Peoria here.
Whatever your circumstances, Harwood said it's important to take action as soon as possible if you're experiencing symptoms of heat exhaustion.
“Headache, lightheadedness, dizziness, blurred vision, muscle cramping, profuse sweating, once you’re there you need to remove the heat source,” he said. “That’s getting yourself out of the heat and that’s probably going to be the most important. And then, rapid hydration.”
If the heat source isn't removed and you're not hydrated, the symptoms worsen, eventually leading to conditions that can make it difficult to seek out the proper assistance.
“Without treatment you will progress to…loss of memory, confusion,” Harwood said. “Then you’re not going to know that you need to be taking your medications, you need to be hydrating, you need to be removing the heat source to save your life. That’s what it’s about. It’s a matter of life and death at times.”
Harwood also encourages checking on your neighbors during periods of extreme temperatures. Assist whoever you can with finding sufficient access to ventilation and water.
In the case of Moore's death, Harwood doesn't believe she would have died without the added stress from heat.
“Always, we have to consider the environment. Then we have to use the ‘but for’ principle, would they have passed away but for this?” he said. “And we don’t think she would have passed away had it not been for the exacerbation of the heat and the implication of the heat on her body.”
If you're at risk of losing your utilities, there are some resources available in the Peoria area to help avoid disconnections. For example, the 211 line at Heart of Illinois United Way can help you find an energy assistance program. ThePeoria Townshipalso offers energy assistance through their "Township Relief" arm.
In the future, the Peoria Citizens Committee for Economic Opportunity could help you fill out an application for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, or LIHEAP, when those applications reopen this fall.
Kennedy recommends reaching out directly to Ameren Customer Service to learn more about the energy assistance options they have on offer.
“We have locally based people that live in the neighborhoods, in the communities,” Kennedy said. “Our custom service reps are in the communities and they want to help.”
Kennedy also recommends taking small personal steps to increase energy efficiency and lower the temperature in your home during heat advisories by clearing your vents, replacing air filters, closing shades, curtains and blinds and cooking or grilling outside to avoid heating up your kitchen.