As sweltering summer heat rises, cities are looking for new ways to keep people safe and alive

The official start of summer is just over five weeks away, but preparations for the intense heat have been underway for months in some parts of the country due to last year’s scorching heat.

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

But last summer was particularly severe — Phoenix, for example, endured 31 consecutive days of high temperatures of 110 degrees Fahrenheit or higher, beating the city’s previous record of 18 days set in 1974. At least 645 people in Maricopa County, which includes Phoenix, will die from heat-related causes in 2023, a 52% increase from the previous year. District Health Department.

The 2023 heatwave revealed how challenging it can be to cope with weeks of extreme temperatures, even in places where residents are accustomed to hot weather. The coming months are expected to be warmer – if not warmer.

Based on global temperatures so far, 2024 will rank among the top five warmest years on record and has a 61% chance of being the warmest on record, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said Thursday.

It’s prompted cities across the South and Southwest to reevaluate how to keep people safe and alive this summer. Some have launched new initiatives aimed at increasing shade in public spaces, strengthening health care systems to deal with heatwave victims, and reaching out to outdoor workers, homeless people and other vulnerable communities.

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Gallego said Phoenix is ​​creating “cool corridors” by planting trees and repainting pavement with highly reflective coatings to reduce urban heat. The primary focus now is to reduce the high overnight temperatures that plagued the city last summer.

“We’re getting low temperatures that are setting records for how warm they’ve been,” he said. “It really forces us to pay attention to how we design the city — what materials we use and how we protect open spaces, which dissipate heat at night.”

Salvation Army volunteer Francesca Corral hands out water at a Phoenix relief station in July.Matt York / AP File

In Miami-Dade County, Florida, Chief Heat Officer Jane Gilbert said adding resources to protect residents most vulnerable to rising temperatures is a top priority.

“It’s people who can’t stay cool in an affordable home, it’s people who have to work outside, it’s older people, it’s people who have to take a bus on a route where they have to wait over an hour at an unsheltered stop. In that heat,” she said.

To that end, the county’s transportation department installed 150 new bus shelters last year and expects to add 150 more this year, Gilbert says. With a $10 million grant from the Inflation Reduction Act, the office is planting trees along county and state-maintained roads to increase shade.

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

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

“When a hurricane hits or a wildfire comes, there’s no doubt about what happened, but the heat is more difficult because our environment doesn’t have the same environmental footprint until it gets really intense.” said Ashley Ward, director of the Center for Heat Policy Innovation at Duke University’s Nicholls Institute for Energy, Environment and Sustainability.

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

Yolanda Magana drinks water as she takes a break from cutting down trees in July in Phoenix.Mario Tama/Getty Images File

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

He said government officials should treat attacks of extreme heat and humidity like typhoons, cyclones and other calamities.

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

Last summer was a wake-up call, he added.

“That was our Category 5 heat event,” Ward said. “The extreme nature of what we saw last summer was enough to focus attention on this topic.”

Studies show that climate change is increasing the frequency, duration and intensity of heat waves worldwide. Last year was the planet’s hottest on record, and the warming trend continues. It was April Global temperature has been recorded for the 11th consecutive monthAccording to the European Union’s Copernicus Climate Change Service.

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For most of the United States, temperatures are expected to be above average over the next three months. According to NOAA.

Ward said it’s good to see cities taking overheating seriously, but stressed that big challenges lie ahead. For one thing, extreme heat requires pre-prepared funding, which is a big challenge, especially for rural communities.

Tactfully dealing with even basic social issues that are magnified during heat waves, such as homelessness, rising energy costs and economic inequality.

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

“What we see going forward is a greater emphasis on what we can do to reduce those exposures,” he said, “and we’re not constantly in response mode.”

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