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  • Trevor Woitsky

The Understated (and Rising) Risk of Heat Waves in America


More than 700 people on average die per year in the U.S. from extreme heat, which is hundreds more compared to the average 85 deaths from flooding, 69 from tornadoes, and 46 from hurricanes, based on data from 1991-2020. Just last year, a heat wave in the Pacific Northwest killed hundreds. This week, California has been experiencing what might be the worst heat wave in state history, with Los Angeles hitting triple-digit temperatures. Scientists believe such deadly events will only become more frequent and long-lasting as climate change intensifies.

The short- and long-term effects of heat waves have indeed appeared to grow more prominent. In June 2021 for example, California asked its residents to set their thermostats at 78 degrees or higher to reduce stress on the power grid during peak heat waves. A megadrought has gripped the Southwest for 20 years as wildfires have increasingly spread and farmers’ crop yields have fallen. In Phoenix, construction companies have rotated their workers’ shifts and construction projects to night operations to avoid the worst of the summer heat.

These unfortunate events and circumstances are exacerbated by harmful pre-existing community patterns of development due to poor planning and design, poverty, racism, and other historical factors. Take New York City - in the Bronx, 41% of all residents fall below the federal poverty line and 24% of all households lack basic air conditioning. As a result of such conditions, heat-related illnesses killed an estimated 350 New Yorkers on average each year from 2010-2018. Heat-related mortality rates were higher in neighborhoods with more Black New Yorkers and households earning below the federal poverty line. Such current differential outcomes result from decades of corruption, power politics, racist redlining, disproportionate spending cuts, community under-investment by the city, and destructive zoning laws.

In order to combat extreme heat effects, both short- and long-term strategies need to be pursued. Targeted low-income heat reduction strategies might include tax credits for low-income housing improvements like air conditioning, more shaded walkways, and more cooling centers in public spaces. Longer-term affordable housing and community planning efforts will have to take into account higher temperatures and design accordingly to generate more natural ventilation and cooling patterns. Advanced shingles and window films, district cooling, and other nature-based solutions should grow in popularity.

From a systems-based perspective, this challenge needs to be fought at multiple levels:

Individual and Family Self Care: With heat waves becoming the norm across America, individuals and their families can and must take proactive steps to protect themselves from heat-related illnesses.

  • First off, monitor your local weather channels for impending heat wave warnings. If a heat warning is in effect, make sure you can recognize the signs of heat illness.

  • Cover your windows with drapes and perhaps air conditioners.

  • Identify and know how to get to local public cooling spaces with shade, fans, and/or air conditioners.

  • Get consistent access to drinking water, or consider cooling off with an outdoor water activity.

Businesses and Organizations: Small and large businesses can also take steps to protect their employees from extreme heat, especially those that work outdoors.

  • Private companies should ensure that interior areas are well-ventilated and -cooled.

  • Provide your staff with correct protective clothing and training on heat illnesses.

  • Encourage shift breaks for outdoor workers, schedule outdoor work around peak heat hours, and install on-site water points for hydration.

Local, State, and Federal Government

  • Governments should execute short- and long-term measures that enhance prevention and promote resilience in the face of heat waves and heat-related illnesses. In the short-term, these could include: education campaigns about the risks, warning signs, and safety measures for heat waves, as well as robust public health heat warning systems.

  • Long-term, governments must recognize the value of and commit to infrastructure improvements and designs that lower heat in communities,, like urban heat island mitigation and tree planting.

  • Frequently updated and/or real-time data should be used to inform decision-making for reduction of and adaptation to the impacts caused by extreme heat. For example, the Biden Administration launched this past July, a "premier source of heat and health information for the nation to reduce the health, economic, and infrastructural impacts of extreme heat."

  • Air-conditioned public buildings like libraries and schools can be adopted as community cooling centers, even for large temporary events like concerts or marathons.

  • In 2018, the Disaster Recovery Reform Act allocated 6% of federal disaster grants to pre-disaster mitigation. So what can FEMA do? FEMA can support and catalyze public investment in proven local and state cooling strategies and encourage innovation and adaptation through the Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities program (BRIC).

Heat waves are no joke and are likely to get more severe in the near future based on weather and climate modeling. No single entity has the capability to mitigate its effects, which is why effective strategies in the future need to connect and engage individuals, businesses, governments, and other public and private entities to increase future resilience to this hazard.


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