Heatwaves Aren't Seen As A Big Threat, But They Should : Consider This from NPR Heatwaves don't have names or categories like hurricanes and wildfires, but they kill more people each year than any other weather event, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Heatwaves Are The Deadliest Weather Events, But They're Rarely Treated That Way

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/1037916592/1038064206" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

I bet you can name a hurricane or two - Ida, Sandy, Katrina. Now, remember that heat dome in the Pacific Northwest early in the summer?

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: The extreme heat wave baking the Pacific Northwest has killed around 100 people in Canada and nearly...

CORNISH: No name, major damage. The thing is heat waves are the No. 1 weather-related cause of death in the U.S. That's according to the Environmental Protection Agency. And yet it's not clear people see heat as having the same potential for disaster.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: Officials in Oregon have reported 45 deaths related to excess heat in one county alone.

CORNISH: The official death toll for Washington and Oregon combined is at around 200 people, but the actual number is likely much closer to 600. The nation's infrastructure, especially in cities and towns in the northern parts of the country - it wasn't built for this.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: The heat melting the streetcar power lines in Portland and buckling this highway in Everson, Wash., forcing officials to shut it down. Many homes...

CORNISH: We're going to talk about the kinds of changes it will take for the nation's infrastructure to prepare for the kind of destructive heat that will likely come with climate warming. Some people are already imagining that future.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "REMINISCENCE")

HUGH JACKMAN: (As Nick Bannister) When the sun rises, Miami turns into a ghost town.

CORNISH: OK, so this is a movie scene from the neo-noir thriller "Reminiscence." It stars Hugh Jackman.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "REMINISCENCE")

JACKMAN: (As Nick Bannister) To escape the heat of day, the city's become nocturnal.

CORNISH: Jackman's character lives in a semi-submerged Miami, where the temperatures are so hot people have given up doing anything during the day. And according to climate experts, that's not such a crazy idea.

KATHY BAUGHMAN MCLEOD: When we get hot, we are tired. And we think more slowly, and we make mistakes.

CORNISH: Kathy Baughman McLeod is the director of the Adrienne Arsht-Rockefeller Foundation Resilience Center. It's a think tank that focuses on climate.

MCLEOD: Exponentially more accidents take place when it's hot. And so those things add up, and we calculated that to add up for 2020 to be $100 billion.

CORNISH: So there's a clear economic cost and a human cost. And yet...

MCLEOD: Heat has no owner. There's no heat department or heat agency.

CORNISH: CONSIDER THIS - extreme heat is here, and it requires a mix of long-term planning and emergency response. Yet accomplishing either of those is an uphill battle. From NPR, I'm Audie Cornish. It's Thursday, September 16.

It's CONSIDER THIS FROM NPR, and the sun has been beating down hard on South Los Angeles this September.

DEBBIE STEPHENS BROWDER: There's not the distinct difference between summer and fall or between fall and winter.

CORNISH: That's Debbie Stephens Browder, a longtime resident of South LA.

STEPHENS BROWDER: It's like everything just kind of goes together now.

CORNISH: More hot days of the year. That's not just an inconvenience. It's a public health hazard. So Stephens Browder wanted to do something about it.

STEPHENS BROWDER: I'm starting with trees. That's where I'm starting.

CORNISH: She's a retired teacher and recently became a community organizer for a group called TreePeople - might be able to guess what they're about.

STEPHENS BROWDER: And been talking to those that really don't know the importance of trees. And so they say, well, no, I'm not sure I want one. I take it as my personal challenge to change their mind.

CORNISH: Now, Stephens Browder thinks of trees as a vital part of a city's infrastructure, meaning they're not just nice to have; that more trees in places like Watts, her South LA neighborhood - well, they can actually save lives. NPR's Jonaki Mehta went to a recent TreePeople people planting event in Watts.

JONAKI MEHTA, BYLINE: Extreme heat is no longer a threat of the future. It's here.

CHANNING SMITH: We'd have, like, I would say maybe about, like, a month during the summertime where it was, like, really, really hot.

MEHTA: Channing Smith (ph) has lived in South Los Angeles most of her life.

SMITH: And just now it's just - it's like you look up, and it's always blazing (laughter) in the summer.

MEHTA: This noticeable shift is why Smith showed up at a tree-planting event with her family...

SMITH: The goal is to take the pot from the tree, not the tree from the pot.

MEHTA: Including her 6-year-old daughter, Elle (ph).

Why are you out here planting trees?

ELLE: You need to have oxygen and air.

MEHTA: That's probably how most people would answer. We need trees for oxygen, clean air. But here in Watts, residents also desperately need the shade.

STEPHENS BROWDER: It's life or death. It is not just about beautifying the community. It's about saving lives.

MEHTA: That's Debbie Stephens Browder, the community organizer who we heard from earlier.

STEPHENS BROWDER: After five days of extreme heat, it's more likely that people will pass away from that type of heat, especially those with other conditions and those that are seniors like myself.

MEHTA: Watts' tree canopy is just about 5%, meaning that only 5% percent of the neighborhood is covered by shade from trees.

STEPHENS BROWDER: And so it is really important that we try to produce here as many trees as we can.

MEHTA: About 20 miles away in Beverly Hills, the tree canopy is nearly 25%. And that shade can cool surface temperatures by up to 45 degrees Fahrenheit. And like most parts of the country, it's Black and brown people who bear the brunt of the heat in LA.

STEPHENS BROWDER: Without the shade canopy, then we're just walking in the sun. You can really notice the difference even if you stand here in the shade and there in the sun.

MEHTA: So this group of volunteers are helping in the way they know best.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Awesome - maybe the bottom a little bit.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Good job, you guys.

MEHTA: More trees in the ground means a cooler, safer neighborhood because long summers like this one are here to stay.

CORNISH: NPR's Jonaki Mehta.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CORNISH: We know a lot of people die from extreme heat every year. But getting an exact number - well, that's difficult.

JANE GILBERT: We have an increase in mortalities across the country in extreme heat days, but those aren't all recorded as heat-related mortality.

CORNISH: This is Jane Gilbert. And last year, she became the first ever chief heat officer for Miami-Dade County.

GILBERT: I've been here 26 years. I can feel the change. We have about a month more of days over 90 degrees than we did when I moved here 26 years ago.

CORNISH: Now, back when she had a similar job for the city of Miami, she went door to door and spoke to residents in low-income areas about their concerns.

GILBERT: And the majority of those people spoke about heat and their concerns about heat a lot.

CORNISH: She says more people are moving downtown, and they need bike lanes, buses and sidewalks to get around. But all that existing infrastructure, it doesn't help much if it's too hot to use it.

GILBERT: If it's unshaded, particularly without trees, it becomes prohibitive to be out there in that 104 heat index.

CORNISH: Local governments around the country are trying all kinds of things to keep people cool. Painting streets white, installing cooling roofs, enhancing wind flow through buildings. All of that takes money, and federal funding is typically reserved for other kinds of climate disasters, wildfires and hurricanes - you know, disasters with names.

MCLEOD: We believe that if we name heat waves and categorize them the way we do hurricanes that we can universally raise the awareness and the preparation and create a culture of prevention for heat.

CORNISH: That's Kathy Baughman McLeod again. She's the director of a climate think tank, and her team is developing a process for categorizing and naming heat waves. They also helped create that chief heat officer role in Miami that Jane Gilbert currently holds.

MCLEOD: The places most experiencing it are waking up and beginning to adopt policies. And I think we'll see more chief heat officers at the local government level in the U.S., more heat health task forces. And we'll be partnering across the country.

CORNISH: I spoke with McLeod about what this kind of unified approach to heat could look like. It's interesting because what you're describing, the creation of these offices, people paying more attention to it as a long-term problem sounds like a kind of building up of a system, right? Like, kind of like the system we have around hurricanes or tropical storms. Is that what's been lacking when it comes to this issue?

MCLEOD: Well, if you think about it, heat has no owner. There is no heat department or heat agency like FEMA has, you know, jurisdiction over floods, and the U.S. Forest Service has jurisdiction over fires. You know, there isn't anybody that you go to as the authority. It's everybody and nobody's problem. And I think that needs to change.

CORNISH: I guess I'm wondering, why do you think governments haven't treated heat in the same way they do other climate-related disasters?

MCLEOD: I think, in part, because of the interaction with heat, with the human body, it's a health issue. Our estimate with models and current data show that 8,800 people were killed from heat in 2020. And 430, by comparison, were killed by hurricanes. So that's 20 times more people dying from heat in 2020. And the people dying are, for the most part, Black and brown communities and senior citizens dying alone. These are not people with immense political clout.

The other reason is that it doesn't relate to assets with value. And so when you think about what we ensure, we ensure things that the wind blows over or things that get flooded. And so insurance companies are really good at assessing and quantifying the risk of the building, the hotel, the damage to the pier or whatever. But when we think about the damage to heat, it's not a common vocabulary that we're using in the way that we look at disasters the way FEMA does. And that's something we'd like to change.

CORNISH: How do you determine an impact, an economic impact? Are you looking at, like, power usage? Are you looking at, you know, deaths? Kind of how do you figure that out?

MCLEOD: One of the best ways to do that is through worker productivity impacts. You know, thinking about someone who works in a farm field, somebody who works in construction or driving a delivery truck and their exposure to heat. And so a lot of the economic impact is about the slowdown that happens from heat. And one of the biggest data sets is through worker's comp data, which is where workers get injured.

CORNISH: So you're saying when you have those big heat events, you see more worker incidents, accidents?

MCLEOD: Exponentially more accidents take place when it's hot. And so those things add up, and we calculated that to add up for 2020 to be $100 billion.

CORNISH: This seems like a silly question, but is there any way to prepare for the heat, so to speak, just like as a regular person?

MCLEOD: Well, one of the first things people can do is a personal heat risk assessment. You know, do you have additional vulnerability by your age, by any underlying health conditions? Do you have diabetes, heart conditions, any kidney issues? All these things people can do up front. And then think about, I'm going to need to curtail my activities outside when this heat event comes. So often, unaware people go about their normal business of going, running or hiking or doing things they think they can just power through the heat. And it's just more intense than it used to be. They're not accustomed to it. And it takes its toll. And so you can get ready. That's a personal side.

And then a community can get ready by notifying people that it's coming, going door to door like an urban search and rescue style of going to places where you know the most vulnerable people are - senior citizens, people living alone on a fixed income. And you can provide generators for cooling. You can provide community centers with extra air conditioning. So there are lots of things that can be done in advance.

CORNISH: You're making it sound like it's not too late.

MCLEOD: It's not. We can absolutely do this. People do not have to die of heat. They should not die of heat. We have the policies we need, the interventions, all of the evidence base. We've got money. We can do this. We need to stop emitting greenhouse gases immediately, but we can protect people from heat. This is doable.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CORNISH: Kathy Baughman McLeod is the director of the Adrienne Arsht-Rockefeller Foundation Resilience Center.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CORNISH: You're listening to CONSIDER THIS FROM NPR. I'm Audie Cornish.

Copyright © 2021 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.