Many cities have plans for extreme heat, but experts say they may not be enough


Natural disasters can be dramatic — violent hurricanes, tornadoes that topple buildings — but heat can be even more deadly.

Chicago learned that the hard way in 1995.

That July, a week-long heatwave that peaked at 106 degrees Fahrenheit (41 degrees Celsius) killed more than 700 people. Most of the deaths occur in poor and predominantly Black neighborhoods, where many elderly or isolated people suffer without proper ventilation or air conditioning. Power outages caused by an overloaded grid make things worse.

Initially slow to respond, Chicago has since developed heat emergency response plans that include a major effort to alert the public and then connect the most vulnerable with assistance. help they may need. Other cities like Los Angeles, Miami and Phoenix now have “heat directors” to coordinate planning and response to dangerous heat. Around the world, cities and countries have adopted similar measures.

But experts warn that those steps may not be enough in a world that is seeing temperature records repeatedly broken and inequality continuing among the most vulnerable. dearest.

“I don’t know of a city that is really prepared for the worst-case scenario,” said Eric Klinenberg, a professor of social sciences at New York University who has written a book about the Chicago heatwave. climate scientists fear.

Heat preparedness has generally improved over the years as forecasts have become more accurate and as meteorologists, journalists and government officials have focused on spreading information. about the impending danger. For example, Chicago has expanded its emergency email and text notification systems and identified the most vulnerable residents to reach.

But what works in one city may not work in another. Bharat Venkat, an associate professor at UCLA who directs the university’s Thermal Laboratory, says that’s because each has its own architecture, transportation, layout and inequalities.

Venkat argues that cities should address inequality by investing in labor rights, sustainable development, etc. That sounds expensive — for example, who pays when a city tries to improve. improve working conditions for workers in blistered food trucks? — but Venkat argues that doing nothing will ultimately cost more.

“The status quo is really expensive,” he said. “We just don’t do the math.”

France implemented a heat-monitoring warning system after a long heatwave in 2003 that was estimated to have killed 15,000 people – many of them elderly people living in city apartments and houses. The city has no air conditioning. The system includes public announcements urging people to drink water. Just last month, Germany launched a new campaign against heat-related deaths that it says is inspired by the French experience.

In India, a severe heatwave in 2010 with temperatures above 118 degrees Fahrenheit (48 degrees Celsius) resulted in the deaths of more than 1,300 people in the city of Ahmedabad. City officials now have a heat action plan to raise awareness among locals and health care workers. Another simple initiative: Paint the roof white to reflect the blazing sun.

Ladd Keith, an assistant professor at the University of Arizona, cited Baltimore’s Code Red Extreme Temperature warnings as an example of a well-designed warning system. The alerts go off when the forecast calls for a heat index of 105 degrees Fahrenheit or higher and start moving things like more social services in the communities most vulnerable to heat risk.

He praised the heat workers in cities like Los Angeles, Miami and Phoenix, but said “there are still more than 19,000 cities and towns that don’t have them.”

Inkyu Han, an environmental health scientist at Temple University in Philadelphia, notes that cities are still struggling to get assistive devices such as cooling centers and subsidized air conditioners. into poorer neighborhoods. Much more can be done with simple and sustainable solutions like improving tree canopy, he said.

“It is notable that low-income neighborhoods and communities of color in Philadelphia often lack trees and green spaces on the streets,” says Han.

In Providence, Rhode Island, the Atlantic Ocean typically experiences mild temperatures, but the area can still experience heatwaves. Kate Moretti, an emergency room doctor, says the city’s hospitals are taking in more patients as the heat hits – with an increase in illnesses that may not be clearly linked to the heat, like heart attacks , kidney failure and mental health problems.

“We definitely noticed that it puts a strain on the system,” Moretti said. She said older adults, people who work outdoors, people with disabilities and the homeless make up a large portion of those hospitalizations.

Miami – considered a hotspot for the threat of climate change due to its vulnerability to sea level rise, flooding, hurricanes and extreme heat – appointed its heat staff two years ago to develop strategies to keep people safe from the heat.

Robin Bachin, associate professor of civic and community engagement at the University of Miami, notes that the federal government has laws that protect people in cold climates from turning off heat in hazardous conditions, but there is no such thing for cooling.

“For people staying in apartments that are not publicly subsidized, there is no requirement that landlords provide air conditioning,” says Bachin. “It’s extremely dangerous for our local low-income residents, let alone those who are homeless or who work outdoors.”

Klinenberg says the US has so far been lucky with the duration of most heatwaves, but the power grid is vulnerable due to high demand in some areas, coupled with persistent social inequality. , could cause serious trouble in the coming decades.

Part of that is due to underlying social issues that make deadly heat waves worse, Klinenberg says. Chicago’s 1995 deaths were concentrated not only in poor and isolated neighborhoods, but especially in what he called “exhausted” neighborhoods, places where people had a hard time gathering. together and where social relationships have been eroded. Vacant lots, abandoned restaurants and poorly maintained parks mean people are less likely to check in on each other.

Noboru Nakamura, a professor of atmospheric science at the University of Chicago who specializes in extreme weather phenomena, said he thinks Chicago has made a lot of smart changes by implementing heat emergency plans, controlling Periodic health checks and cooling centers.

But he also sees inequality as a tough challenge.

“A systemic problem of resource inequality is something you can’t really get rid of overnight. And we still have the same problem that we have today. ,” Nakamura said. “So that aspect is still a big, big, big, big unresolved problem.”


O’Malley reports from Philadelphia.


The Associated Press’s climate and environment coverage receives support from a number of private foundations. See more about AP’s climate initiative here. AP is solely responsible for all content.

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