When heat hits, city hall comes to the rescue

The blacktop bakes and even the friskiest dogs wilt.

In the Midwest and East, people have been shedding layers and slowing down, trying desperately to escape the oppressive heat in a week when ice cream melts instantaneously and air conditioners labor overtime to cool a few square feet.

But even as complaining about the temperature becomes a national pastime, health experts note that extreme heat poses risks to the elderly, the poor, and the socially isolated. That is why, more than ever, some city halls go into high gear when the sidewalk simmers and air conditioning fails.

"It's strange that we don't usually think of heat waves as serious health hazards or catastrophic disasters, because in typical years heat waves kill more Americans than all other natural disasters combined," says Eric Klinenberg, a sociology professor at New York University and author of "Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago." "But they prove to be eminently forgettable."

Statistics vary widely from year to year, but the National Weather Service pegs the 10-year average for heat fatalities at 235 – nearly half the 569 total average deaths they list from weather-related causes. Many experts say the actual number is more likely over 1,000, since so many of the excess deaths that occur during heat waves are never examined by a coroner or counted as heat-related.

More than 100 people died from heat-related causes in California last week, and cities farther east are now issuing dire warnings, transporting people to cooling centers, and urging residents to drink water and check on their neighbors.

A rise in heat-emergency response

But while Professor Klinenberg says local governments' response to heat still varies widely, many cities and states have been developing highly sophisticated systems, often run through emergency-response departments and resembling the coordinated approaches they have for terrorist attacks or other natural disasters:

•In New York this week, officials opened 383 cooling centers, activated the city's Emergency Operations Center, extended public pool hours by an hour, issued "beat the heat" guides in five languages, and used generators for many city facilities in order to avoid power failures.

•Rhode Island's governor declared all state beaches free and ordered every town to develop a heat-emergency plan, with at least one public cooling facility per town.

•In Chicago, city officials evacuated more than 1,000 residents from high-rise apartments after their power went out, taking them to hotels, dormitories, or the McCormick Place convention center. They called 300 on a list of the most vulnerable residents and left messages for 30,000 more, and signs all over the city urged Chicagoans to drink water, check on neighbors, and call 311 for information or transportation to cooling centers.

"It's a legitimate public-health issue," says Jarrod Bernstein, a spokesperson with New York's Office of Emergency Management. "Some might question the wisdom of the Office of Emergency Management getting involved in something like this. But in our mind that's indicative of how seriously we take it."

Even so, failures occur. Tens of thousands of residents in New York's Queens borough lost power for 10 days. In St. Louis, about 700,000 customers lost electricity for more than a week.

"Unfortunately it takes a heat disaster to get some attention to those issues," Klinenberg says.

In general, it's cities that have experienced deadly heat waves – like Chicago, where more than 700 people died in the 1995 heat wave – that have the most sophisticated response plans.

Philadelphia, another frequently lauded city, was one of the first to adopt the Heat/Health Watch Warning System now used by 20 American cities. When it's activated, the city increases emergency room staffing, moves the homeless into shelters, and checks on vulnerable residents through a block-captain program in which neighborhood volunteers go door-to-door.

Beyond just temperature, variables like the city's ability to deal with heat, a suspicious rise in the number of deaths, and oppressive air masses help trigger the system, says Larry Kalkstein, a climate researcher at Applied Climatologists, who helped develop the system.

Relief at a Chicago cooling center

In Chicago, many residents were grateful for the city's several dozen cooling centers this week. Anglea Storey's grandson brought her to one on Chicago's South Side when the power went out in her apartment. "It's so hot it ain't even funny," she says, waiting for a bus to take her somewhere else for the night. By Tuesday afternoon, almost 500 people had come into the center for water or a bit of cold air.

Jan Shenko, drinking water in a city-run cooling center in Chicago's Uptown neighborhood, says she's been riding the city's air-conditioned buses, taking lots of cold showers, and, when the heat gets to be too much, opening her freezer door and placing a fan in front of it – or even sticking her head inside.

"I try not to buy anything frozen," she says, giggling a bit. But she feels the freezer technique is justified. "I've lived here my whole life and I've never experienced anything like this. The skin on your feet is burning off. You feel like a roasted turkey."

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