Opinion: Let’s Act like Heat is the Emergency It Is

This op-ed originally appeared on Newsweek.com.

Like many cities, Phoenix recently experienced the hottest July ever this year, with the National Weather Service issuing and extending an excessive heat warning for Phoenix and our neighboring cities for nearly four consecutive weeks.

This heat has had deadly consequences. In August, a former resident who returned to the Valley to visit family died while going on a morning hike, and heat-related deaths among people experiencing homelessness remain alarmingly high. In fact, heat is the deadliest natural disaster, killing more people yearly than hurricanes, tornados, and floods.

As the city council member representing the largest unhoused community in our region, I’ve been raising the alarm on the urgent need to provide more permanent and temporary heat relief solutions. While we’ve made progress by installing more cool water tanks, implementing mobile cooling units, opening more heat relief centers, and creating the country’s first publicly funded Office of Heat Response and Mitigation, there’s more work to do at all levels of government.

First and foremost, Congress and President Joe Biden must add heat to the Stafford Act, which gives the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) the authority to respond to emergencies and determine what qualifies as one. Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego has been leading the charge to call on our federal partners to make this change—and unlock the agency’s full power and resources to address this weather emergency.

Unlike hurricanes or tornados, the deadly effects of heat can often go unseen. We don’t see the same images of cars being swept away in floods or homes flattened. Instead, extreme heat is an invisible killer, leaving a heartbreaking wake of destruction for the friends and families of victims. The numbers, often finalized after coroner and medical examiner reports have been completed, are staggering. During Europe’s 2022 heatwave, over 61,000 people died from heat-related illnesses between May 30 and Sept. 4.

Here in the Valley, 425 people died of heat-related illness in 2022. While we are better equipped to deal with heat as a desert city with only 2 percent of homes lacking an A/C or EVAP cooler, our unsheltered population remains at risk and disproportionately dies of heat-related illness.

Phoenix has made progress in providing heat relief for people experiencing homelessness by opening 62 cooling stations throughout the city, with some locations open after 5 p.m. and on the weekends. Phoenix worked with Governor Katie Hobbs to open two more cooling stations near the Capitol Mall as part of the governor’s emergency heat relief order.

However, with nearly three straight weeks of overnight lows exceeding 90 degrees Fahrenheit, Phoenix needs more overnight heat relief resources and more temporary shelters. Higher overnight temperatures prevent the body from recovering from the effects of heat stress, increasing the likelihood of needing immediate medical attention for heat exhaustion or stroke.

Just ask 33-year-old Timothy, who passed out from the heat while living on the streets and spent two weeks in the hospital recovering from the damage that extreme temperatures inflicted on his body. Because of the extensive recovery time he required, any future heat-related illnesses could prove fatal.

Our workers who labor outside or in poorly ventilated conditions are also at risk. My team is working with stakeholders to identify ways to strengthen, communicate, and enforce existing protections for workers exposed to extreme heat during summer months.

Ultimately, more temporary shelter beds, overnight heat relief resources, and better worker protections will save more lives.

The realities of climate change are that people need stability and security to adapt to our changing world. For us in the desert, residents need affordable homes with resources that build resiliency to unpredictable weather, like solar panels and water catchment systems—located within walking distance of amenities like grocery stores, pharmacies, parks, libraries, high-quality public schools, and more.

We can build those communities with upcoming zoning reform efforts that would allow people to build more affordable homes—and reduce unnecessary landscapes like empty parking lots that only add to our heat index and discourage people from using more climate-friendly means of transportation.

These solutions—a federal emergency designation for heat, more overnight heat relief resources, more shelters, and above all more affordable, sustainable homes—represent the type of multi-pronged action we need to prevent the deadly outcomes of our weather-related disaster: extreme heat. Other municipalities and cities have followed in our footsteps (implementing heat relief teams or creating inter-governmental heat relief networks), and by taking Phoenix’s efforts one step further, we can save lives and help others learn from our challenges.

Yassamin Ansari is vice mayor of Phoenix, Ariz.

The views expressed in this article are the writer’s own.



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