Cities are looking for new ways to keep people safe – and alive – as extreme summer heat approaches

The official start of summer is more than five weeks away, but preparations for extreme heat have been underway for months in parts of the country that were hit hard by last year’s sweltering conditions.

“We prepare for heat year-round in Phoenix,” Mayor Kate Gallego said. “It’s something we know is coming, so we have to think about it even on the coldest day of the year.”

But this past summer was particularly intense—Phoenix, for example, experienced 31 consecutive days of high temperatures at or above 110 degrees Fahrenheit, breaking the city’s previous record of 18 days. settled in 1974. At least 645 people in Maricopa County, including Phoenix. , who died from heat-related causes in 2023, a 52% increase over the previous year, according to the county Health Department.

The 2023 heatwave showed how challenging it can be to deal with extreme temperatures for weeks on end, even in places where residents are used to the hot weather. And the coming months are expected to be just as hot – if not hotter.

That has prompted cities across the South and Southwest to reevaluate how best to keep people safe — and alive — this summer. Some have launched new initiatives aimed at increasing shade in public spaces, strengthening healthcare systems to deal with heat wave victims and outreach to outdoor workers, homeless populations and other vulnerable communities.

Gallego said Phoenix is ​​creating “cool trails” by planting trees and resurfacing the pavement with more reflective coatings to reduce urban heat. A key focus right now is to alleviate high overnight temperatures, which affected the city last summer.

“We were getting record low temperatures for how hot they were,” she said. “That’s putting a lot of pressure on us to focus on how we design the city – what materials we use and how we protect open spaces, which tend to dissipate heat at night.”

extreme heat help hot water (Matt York/AP file)

extreme heat help hot water (Matt York/AP file)

In Miami-Dade County in Florida, chief heat officer Jane Gilbert said directing resources to protect residents most vulnerable to temperature spikes is a top priority.

“It’s the people who can’t afford to stay cool at home, it’s the people who have to work outside, it’s the elderly, it’s people who have to take a bus in a way where they might have to wait at a stop unprotected for an hour. in that heat,” she said.

To that end, the county’s Department of Transportation installed 150 new bus shelters last year and another 150 are expected to be added this year, according to Gilbert. With a $10 million grant from the Inflation Reduction Act, the office is planting trees on county and state-maintained roads to increase shade.

Gilbert’s team focused on raising awareness among renters and homeowners about affordable ways to cool their spaces. Her office also tries to educate employers about the importance of protecting their workers and runs training programs for health care practitioners, homeless outreach workers and summer camp providers.

Nationally, heat kills more people than any other extreme weather event; it is often referred to as the “silent killer” because the effect of heat on the human body is not always obvious.

“When a hurricane or a wildfire hits, there’s no doubt about what happened, but the heat is harder because, for the most part, we don’t have the same context clues in our environment until it gets so extreme,” said Ashley Ward, director of the Heat Policy Innovation Hub at Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Energy, Environment & Sustainability.

Ward and her colleagues specialize in “heat governance,” helping local and state governments prepare for extreme heat events. The work includes finding ways to mitigate heat and developing emergency responses to extreme heat waves.

water break heat profile keep cool certificates (file Mario Tama / Getty Images)water break heat profile keep cool certificates (file Mario Tama / Getty Images)

water break heat profile keep cool certificates (file Mario Tama / Getty Images)

In North Carolina, for example, Ward and her colleagues helped counties design heat action plans to identify the most vulnerable populations.

She said government officials should deal with high heat and humidity killers like hurricanes, tornadoes and other disasters.

“People in emergency management and public health already have a lot of structures in place for all kinds of other extreme weather events, but they don’t have as much heat,” Ward said.

Last summer was a wake-up call, she said.

“That’s our category 5 heat event,” Ward said. “What we saw last summer was enough to draw attention to this matter.”

Climate change is increasing the frequency, duration and intensity of heat waves around the world, studies show. Last year was the planet’s hottest on record, and the warming trend continues. April was the 11th consecutive month with the highest global temperature on record, according to the European Union’s Copernicus Climate Change Service.

In much of the US, temperatures are expected to be above average, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Ward said it was encouraging that cities are taking extreme heat seriously but highlighted the big challenges ahead. For one, funding is needed to prepare early for extreme heat, which is a big challenge, especially for rural communities.

It will be even more difficult to address the underlying social issues that increase during heat waves, such as homelessness, rising energy costs and economic inequality.

Ward is hopeful, however, that last summer’s experience has spurred some local governments to act.

“I hope that in the future we’ll see more emphasis on what we can do to reduce those exposures first,” she said, “so that we’re not always in response mode.”

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