Arizonans Seek Heat Assistance

From a Wall Street Journal story by Alicia A. Caldwell headlined “Arizonans Seek Heat Assistance”:

Debra and Paul McKnight lived in the desert Southwest for about a dozen years and were used to temperatures in the 100s. When their truck broke down on a drive in Arizona last month, it was 118 degrees.

With no water on hand, the couple got out to look for help. Paul soon noticed that Debra, 46 years old, could barely walk. He eventually got water from a creek half a mile away, but by the time he returned, she was severely dehydrated. They eventually got help from a passerby three hours after they broke down, but Debra died soon after of heat stroke.

“I was trying to find any way to cool her off that I could,” Paul McKnight recalled. “She was just too far gone. I’ve thought about it a million times trying to think of different ways I could have helped her.”

With deaths rising in Arizona as the state breaks high-temperature records year after year, a coalition of local leaders including Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego, a Democrat, are calling for the Federal Emergency Management Agency to categorize heat waves as natural disasters, like wildfires, hurricanes and floods.

Researchers say heat kills more Americans than any other weather-related event, though the data collection is inconsistent across jurisdictions. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recorded some 1,700 heat deaths in the U.S. last year, which researchers say is almost certainly a significant undercount. Studies of excess deaths have pegged the number at closer to 10,000 annually. Maricopa County, home to Phoenix, reported 425 heat-related deaths last year and is on track to exceed that figure this year.

The problem is particularly acute in Arizona: The state endured an unprecedented 31 straight days above 110 degrees between June 30 and July 30. In the Phoenix area, a record 22 days in August exceeded 115 degrees.

“It was the hottest summer on record,” said Matthew Hirsch, lead meteorologist at the National Weather Service’s Phoenix office. “But the hottest summer on record has actually happened five times out of the past 11 years. So we keep on breaking records.”

The Biden administration hasn’t heeded calls to add heat waves to the list of natural disasters, but the president met with Arizona officials including Gallego in July to discuss the issue. FEMA also has issued guidance on how cities and states should prepare for extreme heat events.

Rep. Ruben Gallego, a Democrat who represents the Phoenix area in Congress and was previously married to the mayor, proposed legislation in June to include extreme heat events on the list of natural disasters FEMA responds to. The bill hasn’t been taken up in a committee.

Many of those pushing for greater recognition of the toll extreme heat takes say better data is needed. Deaths from heat stroke are easy to recognize by high core body temperatures, but for many victims, the heat is a secondary factor that contributes to other causes of death such as heart disease. Prescription medications, including for mental illness, can make it harder for the body to regulate temperature, making the patient more susceptible to extreme heat.

For deaths where heat isn’t the obvious and only culprit, classifying them as heat-related can be complicated and subjective.

“There isn’t consensus on exactly how to count,” said Gregory Wellenius, director of the Boston University School of Public Health Center for Climate and Health. “So which of those deaths should be labeled as having been due to heat and how many of those should be labeled as heat having played a role as a contributing cause? There’s not a standardized definition of how to do that.”

In Europe, where air conditioning isn’t widespread, some 5,600 people died of heat related causes in Germany, Spain and Italy this summer amid record-high temperatures, according to preliminary tallies.

In U.S. states such as Arizona, where most homes have air conditioning, heat deaths are typically caused when people are outside or have AC units that don’t work or they are wary of turning them on because of the expense.

No local jurisdiction tracks heat-related deaths as aggressively as Maricopa County, home to Phoenix, according to researchers. One of the hottest urban areas in the U.S., the county started tracking such deaths in 2006.

So far this year, heat has killed or contributed to the deaths of at least 202 people in Maricopa County, according to the county’s medical examiner’s office. The deaths of roughly 356 people are still under investigation.

“Regardless of how these investigations fall out, we are going to have a record number of heat-related deaths this year,” said Nick Staab, a medical epidemiologist and assistant medical director for Maricopa County.

The county, home to about 4.5 million people, has reported a record number of heat-related deaths every year since 2016, when there were 154.

In Pima County, home to Arizona’s second-biggest city, Tucson, officials this year began tallying all heat-related deaths, rather than those directly caused by heat.

Pima authorities so far this year have recorded 101 heat-related deaths, including a record 39 in which heat was the cause of death, not just a contributing factor.

Tali Arbel contributed to this article.

Speak Your Mind