Death Toll Rises in Phoenix Heat Wave
JACKI LYDEN, host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden.
Across the nation, temperatures have soared this summer. It's been the hottest July on record in several Eastern cities. Midwestern farmers are couping with high temperatures and drought. In Phoenix, Arizona, the heat has been deadly. The number of suspected heat-related deaths is now over 30. From member station KJZZ in Phoenix, Rene Gutel reports that most of the dead were homeless.
RENE GUTEL reporting:
It's 107 degrees at about 3:00 in the afternoon. The temperature won't even reach its peak for another hour or two and firefighter Matt Gallagher is passing out bottles of icy water outside one of Phoenix's homeless shelters.
Mr. MATT GALLAGHER (Firefighter): Would you like some water, sir?
Unidentified Man #1: Yes, sir. Thanks.
Mr. GALLAGHER: There you go. Let me get you a cold one down deep here.
Unidentified Man #1: Thank you, my friend.
Mr. GALLAGHER: You want a bottle?
GUTEL: This cooling station is at the dusty intersection of 13th Avenue and Madison just south of downtown. It consists of a fire truck with a rolled-out canopy to provide shade, an idling city bus with its air conditioning running inside, and on the sidewalk, an ice chest that's constantly being refilled.
(Soundbite of ice being poured)
GUTEL: Shelter resident Kimberly Abbott(ph) takes a bottle of water out of the chest and stands in front of a misting fan. She says the heat is awful.
Ms. KIMBERLY ABBOTT (Shelter Resident): Miserable. Drawn out. It just sucks the life right out of you.
GUTEL: July's average high temperature in Phoenix is 106. This year it's been 110, and at night, it's only been dropping down to the upper 80s or lower 90s, so people without homes to go to never really have a chance to cool down. Bob Khan is the assistant fire chief of the Phoenix Fire Department.
Mr. BOB KHAN (Assistant Fire Chief, Phoenix Fire Department): This would be equivalent to an ice storm on the East Coast, and I think if you see that and you have an ice storm run through, predictably people living on the street don't fare very well. Well, the Sonora Desert is very much like that. I mean, it can be unforgiving and it can be lethal to folks that are out in the elements.
GUTEL: The firefighters watch for signs of dehydration and heat exhaustion.
Unidentified Man #2: Oh, they're helping you right now. They're going to probably get you a ride the hospital.
Unidentified Man #3: Yeah.
Unidentified Man #2: Does that sound good? They're probably going to get you an ambulance, OK?
Unidentified Man #3: Yeah.
GUTEL: One dazed looking man whose face is scarlet is given a ride out.
Since the heat wave began, homeless shelters and senior centers have expanded their daytime hours and many churches have opened their doors, but this cooling station is the only one the city runs, serving between 200 and 250 people a day. Jason Jones says he's grateful for the help but wishes the city would have done more sooner.
Mr. JASON JONES (Phoenix Resident): It shouldn't have come to the point where, like, 13 or 14 deaths have occurred. That shouldn't have happened, but I'm glad they're actually doing something now about it to help prevent more deaths.
GUTEL: This many heat-related deaths seem to have taken Phoenix by surprise. Officials say a normal summer sees about 10 deaths. This year, it's already triple that. Mo Gallegos is the city's deputy director of human services.
Mr. MO GALLEGOS (Deputy Director of Human Services, Phoenix): Unfortunately, people succumb to the heat every summer. It's just that in this particular instance in a very short period of time, we have so many deaths. It's unacceptable, but at the same time there's no real answer as to why it's happening.
GUTEL: Earlier this month, Mayor Phil Gordon asked the state's congressional delegation to push for increased federal funding for low-income energy assistance. With summer electricity bills often running into the hundreds of dollars, one of the most common causes of homelessness in this city is an inability to pay the utility bill. Gallegos says in his 20 years of working in public health in Arizona, this summer is like no other he's seen.
Mr. GALLEGOS: Hot is hot. It's always hot, but I do know that I've never felt the urgency of this many people being at risk, obviously, from the number of deaths we've seen.
GUTEL: Before this day was out, the mercury rose to 109 and Phoenix police found another dead body, a 26-year-old man in his trailer whose evaporative cooling system was not working.
For NPR News, I'm Rene Gutel in Phoenix.