Phoenix Tries To Reverse Its 'Silent Storm' Of Heat Deaths By 2100, Phoenix summers could resemble the 114-degree averages found in Kuwait. The city wants to become a model for coping in a warming world.

Phoenix Tries To Reverse Its 'Silent Storm' Of Heat Deaths

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Over the past week, heat waves have broken records around the world. And in some places, they have been deadly. In fact, heat kills more people than all other extreme weather events. And this month, NPR is reporting on the impact of rising heat as the climate warms. We start in Phoenix, a city grappling with an increase in heat-related deaths. Will Stone of member station KJZZ has our story.

WILL STONE, BYLINE: There's a moment as heatstroke sets in when the body, no longer able to cool itself, stops sweating. Joey Azuela remembers it well.

JOEY AZUELA: My body felt hot, like, in a different way. It was like a I'm-cooking hot.

STONE: It was three years ago, and Azuela was 14. He and his father were hiking a trail in one of Phoenix's rugged desert preserves, but they got a later start than usual, and they ran out of water.

AZUELA: On the way down, it was just, like, a daze. And I just remember thinking like, man, I got to get to the car; I got to get to the car - and then just black.

STONE: Azuela collapsed in the parking lot. By the time the ambulance arrived, the scalding asphalt had left second-degree burns across his arms and legs.

ALICIA ANDAZOLA: His organs started failing. All his - his body was shutting down.

STONE: Joey's mother, Alicia Andazola, arrived at the ER to find her son covered in ice and his body temperature nearing 108 degrees. Doctors removed his blood with a machine to cool it. He wasn't showing signs of brain activity.

ANDAZOLA: We weren't sure the first couple of days, like, if he was going to make it.

STONE: Last year, more than 155 people died here from heat-related illness, a new record for the Phoenix area. City leaders are calling it a public health crisis and have launched a major overhaul of how the city handles extreme heat.

MARK HARTMAN: Heat is kind of like a silent storm. You don't see it.

STONE: Mark Hartman is head of sustainability for Phoenix. He says the aim is to prepare for heat the same way other places do for hurricanes. The city's in the running for $5 million from Bloomberg Philanthropies to put its heat blueprint into action. As many cities see warmer temperatures, Hartman says Phoenix could serve as a model.

HARTMAN: Our goal is to actually say, to be heat ready, here's all the things you need to do - a comprehensive plan to do that.

STONE: And the danger isn't only with record-high temperatures. On the day Joey Azuela nearly died, it was 103, an average summer day with no extreme heat warning. Dr. Rebecca Sunenshine tracks heat deaths for the Maricopa County Department of Public Health.

REBECCA SUNENSHINE: A lot of people think, oh, well I've lived here; I'm used to it; I'm acclimated to the heat. And we see people who've lived here for 20 years and who hike all the time die of heat-related illness.

STONE: The majority of deaths are outside. The city is testing text alert systems to more aggressively warn people when it may not be safe to be out, even if there aren't emergency warnings. The other 40 percent of deaths last year occurred indoors. Sunenshine says the victims are often women over 75 and living alone.

SUNENSHINE: Because they're older, their bodies are not as able to detect differences in temperature. Oftentimes, they won't have their air conditioning turned on or it'll be malfunctioning.

STONE: Phoenix is looking at installing heat monitors inside the homes of elderly residents. Those could notify first responders or even neighbors when the temperature reaches a dangerous level. Another group dying in higher numbers - the homeless.

JOWAN THORNTON: Hey, buddy, can I get you a water?

STONE: Jowan Thornton is with the Salvation Army, one of dozens of groups coordinating with the city on days like this, when it's forecast to break 110. He grabs bottles of water from an ice-filled bucket and hands them to a man who's taken shelter under a tree.

THORNTON: It's disheartening, a lot of it, when you see so much need out there, especially when it's so hot.

Hey, how are you, Miss? Not to startle you...

STONE: Thornton's combing this downtown park for people who might not have heard about the city's cooling stations. For people living on the street, it's this chronic exposure, day in and day out, that can kill. Thornton sees it firsthand.

THORNTON: Folks who are just, like, beat down by the sun with no reprieve.

STONE: And there's not much more relief after the sun sets. In Phoenix and elsewhere, overnight temperatures are warming up even faster. One man says he pours water on himself to endure the nights he spends in a concrete canal.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: You do the imitation swamp cooler - you know, water and get clothes wet and hope you catch a good breeze.

STONE: And as it gets hotter, Phoenix hopes to keep more people like him safe throughout the summer. For NPR News, I'm Will Stone in Phoenix.


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