August 1, 2008

Cities Sweating Heat Deaths — More Harmful Than Quakes, Floods, Storms

By Amanda Lee Myers

PHOENIX - In recent years, deadly heat waves have killed dozens to hundreds of people at a time in various U.S. cities, often catching local officials unprepared. Climate scientists say more killer heat waves lie ahead with global warming, and city officials are taking note.

A number of cities - especially those hard-hit in the past, such as Chicago, Phoenix and Philadelphia, Pa. - now get aggressive when a heat wave emerges. They open cooling centers, hand out water bottles, go door to door to check on people and even ask utilities not to shut off electricity to late-payers during a heat wave.

In recent days, much of the country has experienced dangerously high heat.

Denver just shattered a 134-year-old record of temperatures topping 90 for 19 days in a row. An excessive heat warning is in place for Phoenix, which is expected to top 110, with lows falling only to around 90.

Memphis' high today is expected to be 99, with a heat index (including the effect of humidity) near 111. A high of 101 is expected Saturday.

High humidity made it feel like 100 degrees in much of South Carolina and 107 in Austin, Texas.

So far this year, roughly 50 people have died from the heat, according to news reports.

Heat waves lack the dramatic destruction of earthquakes, floods, hurricanes and tornadoes, but at 8,015 deaths, heat has killed more people in the U.S. than all those other weather events combined in the 24-year period ending in 2003, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"It's sort of been the quiet killer for many years," said Tony Haffer, meteorologist in charge for the National Weather Service in Phoenix.

Many cities have learned that the hard way.

Most of Phoenix's now extensive efforts began after summer 2005, when temperatures hit at least 110 on 24 days; 80 people died.

Now, other cities are acting before they get to that point.

Seattle has begun educating the public about the dangers of heat and directing people to seek air conditioning. At large public events, Boston has begun putting up "rain rooms" - giant, portable, tent-like structures that spray a mist.

George Luber, an epidemiologist who studies heat wave deaths for the CDC, pointed to Philadelphia as a pioneer at preventing heat deaths.

After a 1993 heat wave killed at least 118, Philadelphia became the first in the country to begin a heat/health watch warning system. It's now a worldwide model for forecasting heat, with 18 other metro areas copying it.


Simmering in the Mid-South

Heat has killed 4 so far in Shelby

The Memphis and Shelby County Health Department reported four heat-related deaths so far this summer, compared with none by this time last year.

The Shelby County Sheriff's Office has volunteers in the Special Services Bureau who visit or call elderly and home-bound people to ensure their needs are met, perhaps via community agencies.

To have someone check on relatives/friends, call the sheriff's office at 379-7625.

To help the Special Services Squad, call 867-1440.

Greater Memphis Reacts

Joan Carr, Memphis and Shelby County Health Department spokeswoman: "We especially stress the need for everyone to check daily on their elderly and disabled friends, relatives and neighbors, particularly those who don't have air-conditioning."

- Mark Watson


Originally published by Amanda Lee Myers Associated Press / Mark Watson contributed. .

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