Cities have been preparing to withstand extreme heat, but is it enough?

FILE – A man cools off under an outdoor shower in Baghdad, Iraq, Thursday, July 6, 2023. (AP Photo/Hadi Mizban, File)

Natural disasters can be spectacular: sweeping hurricanes, tornadoes that topple buildings. But the heat kills more.

Chicago learned it the hard way in nineteen ninety five.

That Julya week-long heat wave that reached 41 degrees Celsius (106 Fahrenheit) killed more than 700 people. Most of the deaths occurred in poor and majority-black neighborhoods, where many elderly or isolated people suffered without air conditioning or adequate ventilation. Blackouts from an overtaxed power grid made it even worse.

Chicago was slow to react, but it has been putting together heat emergency plans that include a massive campaign to alert the public and then connect the most vulnerable with the help they may need. Other cities, like Los Angeles, Miami and Phoenix now have “heat managers” to coordinate planning and response to dangerous heat. Around the world, cities and countries have taken similar steps.

But experts warn that such measures may not be enough in a world that continually breaks heat records and persistent inequality in who is most vulnerable.

“I don’t know of a single city that is really prepared for the worst possible scenario that some scientists fear”said Eric Klinenberg, a professor of social sciences at New York University who wrote a book on the Chicago heat wave.

Cities have been preparing for extreme heat for some time, but is it enough?
FILE – Jessie Fuentes, who works with canoes and kayaks, walks along the Rio Grande River in warm sunshine Thursday, July 6, 2023. (AP Photo/Eric Gay, File)

In general, heat preparation has improved in recent years as forecasts and forecasters became more accurate, and as journalists and government officials focused on raising awareness of the danger ahead. Chicago, for example, has expanded its email and text message notification system and identified its most vulnerable residents to contact.

But what works in one city might not work as well in another. Each has its own architecture, transportation network, urban planning and inequities, said Bharat Venkat, an associate professor at UCLA who directs the university’s Heat Lab, which aims to address what he describes as “thermal inequality.”

Venkat believes that cities must correct inequality by investing in labor rights, sustainable development and other aspects. That may sound expensive — who pays, say, when a city tries to improve conditions for workers in hot food trucks? — but Venkat believes doing nothing will cost more in the long run.

“Actually the current situation is very expensive“, said. “We just don’t do the math.”

France launched a heat advisory initiative following a prolonged heat wave in 2003 that caused an estimated 15,000 deaths, many of them in the elderly who lived in urban houses and apartments without air conditioning. The system includes public announcements urging people to stay hydrated. Just last month, Germany launched a new campaign against heatwave deaths that it said was inspired by the French experience.

Cities have been preparing for extreme heat for some time, but is it enough?
FILE – A woman cools her husband’s body with a cool cloth at a government hospital in Ballia, India’s Uttar Pradesh state, Monday, June 19, 2023. (AP Photo/Rajesh Kumar Singh, File) (Rajesh Kumar Singh/)

In Indiaa powerful heat wave in 2010 with temperatures above 48 degrees Celsius (118 Fahrenheit) killed more than 1,300 people in the city of Ahmedabad. Local authorities now have an action plan to raise awareness among the population and health personnel. Another simple initiative: paint the roofs white to reflect the burning sun.

Ladd Keith, an assistant professor at the University of Arizona, cited the Code Red alerts for Extreme Heat in Baltimore City as an example of a well-designed warning system. The alerts are activated when the forecast includes a temperature of 40.5 degrees Celsius (105 Fahrenheit) or more, and trigger mechanisms such as increased social services in communities most vulnerable to heat.

He also praised heat managers in cities like Los Angeles, Miami and Phoenix, but said they “There are still some 19,000 large and medium-sized cities without them.”

Inkyu Han, an environmental health scientist at Temple University in Philadelphia, said cities are still having trouble getting aid like refreshment centers and air-conditioning subsidies into more modest neighborhoods. More can also be done with simple, sustainable solutions like improving tree cover, he said.

“Especially low-income neighborhoods and communities of color in Philadelphia often lack street trees and green spaces,” Han said.

FILE PHOTO.  A woman walks with cold patches on her forehead and neck amid a heat wave red alert in Beijing, China, June 23, 2023. REUTERS/Tingshu Wang/
FILE PHOTO. A woman walks with cold patches on her forehead and neck amid a red alert for a heat wave in Beijing, China, on June 23, 2023. REUTERS/Tingshu Wang/ (TINGSHU WANG/)

In Providence, Rhode Island, the Atlantic Ocean often moderates temperatures, but the region can still experience heat waves. Kate Moretti, an emergency physician, noted that the city’s hospitals have more patients when the heat hits, with increases in illnesses that may not have an obvious relationship to temperature, such as heart attacks, kidney failure and mental health problems.

“We definitely notice that it puts pressure on the system,” Moretti said. The elderly, outdoor workers, disabled or homeless are a significant part of that income, he said.

Miami, considered ground zero for the threat of climate change due to its vulnerability to sea level rise, flooding, hurricanes and heat, appointed its heat officer two years ago to seek strategies to keep people safe from the heat.

Robin Bachin, associate professor of civic and community engagement at the University of Miami, noted that the federal government has laws to protect people in cold climates from having their heat turned off in dangerous conditions, but it doesn’t have a similar policy for refrigeration. .

“For people in unsubsidized apartments, landlords are not required to provide air conditioning,” Bachin said. “That is incredibly dangerous, especially for our low-income local population, let alone homeless or outdoor workers.”

heat wave recommendations
The alerts are activated when the forecast includes a temperature of 40.5 degrees Celsius (105 Fahrenheit) or more, and trigger mechanisms such as increased social services in communities most vulnerable to heat.

Klinenberg noted that for now, the United States has been lucky with the duration of most heat waves, but that power grids vulnerable to high demand in some regions, coupled with persistent social inequality, could pose serious problems in the coming years. decades.

That’s partly because the underlying social problems that make heat spells so deadly are getting worse, Klinenberg said. The deaths in Chicago in 1995 were concentrated not only in poor and segregated neighborhoods, but also specifically in what he described as “eroded” neighborhoods where people find it harder to come together and social connections have deteriorated. Empty lots, abandoned restaurants, and poorly maintained parks reduce the chances that people will know how others are doing.

Noboru Nakamura, a professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Chicago and a specialist in extreme weather events, said he believes that Chicago has made many smart changes by introducing emergency plans, routine wellness checks, and refreshment centers.

But he also mentioned inequality as a difficult challenge.

“A systemic problem of inequality of resources is not something that you are going to get rid of overnight. And we still have the same problem that we had then,” Nakamura said. “So that aspect is still a big, big, big, big unsolved problem.”

(with information from AP)

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