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Cities are looking for new ways to keep people safe and alive as extreme summer heat approaches.

More than five weeks remain before the official start of summer, but preparations to deal with extreme heat have been underway for several months in parts of the country hit hard by last year’s sweltering conditions.

“We prepare for heat all year round in Phoenix,” said Mayor Kate Gallego. “It’s something we know happens, so we have to think about it even on the coldest day of the year.”

But last summer was particularly harsh: Phoenix, for example, endured 31 straight days of high temperatures at or above 110 degrees Fahrenheit, with the city breaking a previous record of 18 days set in 1974. At least 645 people in the Maricopa County, which includes Phoenix. , died of heat-related causes in 2023, a 52% increase from the previous year, according to the county health department.

The heatwaves of 2023 have revealed how difficult it can be to deal with extreme temperatures for weeks on end, even in areas where residents are accustomed to hot weather. And the coming months are expected to be just as warm, if not hotter.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said Thursday that based on global temperatures so far, 2024 will rank among the five hottest years in recorded history and has a 61% chance of to be the hottest on record.

This has prompted cities across the South and Southwest to reevaluate how best to keep people safe and alive this summer. Some have launched new initiatives to increase shade in public spaces, strengthen health systems to deal with heatwave victims, and raise awareness among outdoor workers, homeless populations, and other vulnerable communities.

Gallego said Phoenix has created “cool corridors” by planting trees and resurfacing the roadway with more reflective coatings to reduce urban heat. One of the main priorities right now is to alleviate the high nighttime temperatures, which hit the city last summer.

“We had low temperatures that set heat records,” she said. “It really pushes us to focus on how we design the city: on the materials we use and how we protect open spaces, which tend to dissipate heat at night.”

Salvation Army volunteer Francisca Corral distributes water at a relief station in Phoenix in July.Matt York / AP file

In Miami-Dade County, Florida, heating director Jane Gilbert said a top priority is channeling resources to protect residents most vulnerable to temperature spikes.

“These are people who can’t stay cool at home cheaply, these are people who have to work outside, these are elderly people, these are people who have to take a bus on a route where they might have to wait more than an hour at an unsheltered stop in this heat,” she said.

To that end, the county transportation department installed 150 new bus shelters last year and is expected to add 150 more this year, according to Gilbert. With a $10 million grant from the Inflation Reduction Act, the office is also planting trees along county and state-maintained roads to increase shade.

Gilbert’s team focused on educating tenants and homeowners about affordable ways to refresh their spaces. His office also tries to educate employers on the importance of protecting their workers and hosts training programs for medical professionals, homeless outreach workers and summer camp organizers.

Nationally, heat kills more people than any other extreme weather event; It is often called a “silent killer” because the impact of heat on the human body is not always obvious.

“When a hurricane hits or a wildfire breaks out, there’s no doubt about what just happened, but the heat is more difficult because, for the most part, we don’t have the same contextual cues in our environment until it became so extreme,” said Ashley Ward, director of the Heat Policy Innovation Hub at Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Energy, Environment and Sustainability.

Ward and his colleagues specialize in “heat governance,” helping local and state governments prepare for extreme heat events. The work includes finding ways to mitigate the heat and developing emergency responses in the event of major heat waves.

Yolanda Magana drinks water during a break from her job pruning trees in Phoenix in July.Mario Tama file/Getty Images

In North Carolina, for example, Ward and colleagues helped counties develop heat action plans to identify their most vulnerable populations.

She said government officials should respond to onslaughts of high heat and humidity, the same way they do hurricanes, tornadoes and other disasters.

“Emergency management and public health officials already have a lot of structures in place for all sorts of other extreme weather events, but not really for heat,” Ward said.

Last summer was a wake-up call, she added.

“It was our Category 5 qualifying event,” Ward said. “The extreme nature of what we saw last summer was enough to draw attention to this topic.”

Climate change is increasing the frequency, duration and intensity of heat waves around the world, studies show. Last year was the hottest on record on the planet, and the warming trend continues. April was the 11th consecutive month with record global temperatures, according to the European Union’s Copernicus climate change service.

Across much of the United States, temperatures over the next three months are expected to be above average, according to NOAA.

Ward said it’s heartening to see cities taking extreme heat seriously, but stressed that major challenges lie ahead. On the one hand, preparing early for extreme heat requires funding, which is a major challenge, especially for rural communities.

Tackling underlying social problems that increase during heat waves, such as homelessness, rising energy costs and economic inequality, will be even trickier.

Ward is optimistic, however, and believes that last summer’s experience has spurred some local governments to act.

“I hope in the future we’ll see more emphasis on what we can do to reduce these exposures,” she said, “so that we’re not constantly in response mode.”

News Source : www.nbcnews.com
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