Deadly heat: US cities hire ‘heat bosses’ as they face growing heat threat

Gilbert said most of Miami’s previous climate-related work has focused on adapting to rising sea levels, rising storm surges and flooding — but it was rarely about extreme heat.

“The heat was not a big priority,” Gilbert told CNN. “I ended up making it part of the City of Miami’s climate preparedness strategy because when I did outreach at the neighborhood level on our planning process and really defined the key concerns people related to climate change, extreme heat, and the compound risks of extreme heat with the hurricane happened a lot.”

Heat already kills more Americans than any other weather-related disaster and the climate crisis has been making these extreme events deadlier. Heat-related deaths have exceeded hurricane-related deaths by more than 15 to 1 over the past decade, according to data tracked by the National Weather Service. But unlike hurricanes, the invisible nature of the heat does not evoke a sense of urgency in the public’s mind.

Gilbert said cities have always approached the threat under the umbrella of extreme weather, tending to be overshadowed by strategies against floods, wildfires and sea level rise. So when a heat wave hits, it wreaks havoc on infrastructure, health services, worker productivity, food production and disproportionately hits marginalized communities and low-income populations.

“There’s never been a role before this where someone is just focused on looking at the health and economic impacts of heat, and looking cross-sectionally not just between departments in that jurisdiction, so in my case at the within the county, but between agencies and across sectors,” Gilbert said. “I’m tasked with breaking down those silos.”

As hot temperature records surpass cold records, American cities are increasingly turning to agents like Gilbert to deal with the crisis. After Gilbert’s appointment, Phoenix and Los Angeles followed suit, hiring their own heat managers in hopes of improving public awareness and each city’s heat-vulnerable fabric to protect lives.

“My role is to really better understand the risks – current and future, and secondly to engage community-wide stakeholders in developing solutions,” Gilbert said.

Heat islands and public health

The cumulative consequences of urban heat do not fall in the same way in all communities. A recent study from the University of California, San Diego found that low-income neighborhoods and communities with large Black, Hispanic, and Asian populations feel a lot more heat than wealthier, predominantly white neighborhoods.

It mirrors earlier research that traces the legacy of neighborhood redlining, the government-sanctioned effort in the 1930s to segregate people of color by denying them housing loans and insurance. The research analyzed 108 cities in the United States and found that 94% of historically demarcated neighborhoods are disproportionately hotter than other neighborhoods in the same city.

It is because of the the so-called urban heat island effect, making some urban communities even more vulnerable. Areas with lots of asphalt, buildings, and highways tend to absorb a significant amount of solar energy and emit it as heat. Areas with green spaces – parks, rivers, tree-lined streets – absorb and emit less.

“Heat is costing us so much,” Kathy Baughman McLeod, director of the Adrienne Arsht-Rockefeller Foundation Resilience Center, the group that leads the appointment of heat managers around the world, told CNN. “It’s an infrastructure crisis. It’s a health crisis. It’s a social and equity crisis.”

Phoenix struggled with the inequality in the Heat. In Maricopa County, homeless people account for the majority of heat-related deaths, according to Phoenix Heat Manager David Hondula, who was appointed late last summer.

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But armed with this knowledge, Hondula deployed staff and volunteers to provide relief to the area’s homeless population and eliminate heat-related risks. This sparked an interagency partnership with the Phoenix Homeless Services Division, Hondula said. On every shift on the streets, a division case manager would join the Hondula team in the field to help manage housing issues the Hondula team wouldn’t otherwise know the answer to — and he said that had made a huge difference in their approach.

“The other day, literally as we pulled into a parking lot, we were in contact with a family of nine or 10 living in their car, and because our case manager was there, at the end of our shift, they were all on their way to a shelter that night,” he told CNN. “While we’re very excited to put cold water in people’s hands and let them know about cooling centers, it’s the meaningful differences that will really pay off in the long run to keep people safe in our community. .”

Marta Segura was named heat manager in Los Angeles just four weeks ago, and she now faces a similar challenge. Due to the widespread homeless population in the city, she said it was difficult to find targeted and holistic solutions to protect them from the extreme heat.

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“Extreme heat exacerbates these [pre-existing health] conditions and stagnant pollution and smoke, and that’s why we’re seeing more deaths and hospitalizations in our most vulnerable communities that also have the least canopy and open space,” Segura told CNN.

Segura said these communities need more than shade and water. She said she plans to change building codes to create more climate-friendly and resilient homes that would keep residents safe and cool during scorching heat waves.

From homeless communities to babies and the elderly, climate change will only put the most vulnerable at even greater risk if cities don’t rethink how cities are designed to adapt to the heat. , Segura said. Without drastic measures, people in these areas would have to fundamentally change their way of life to adapt to more severe heat waves.

With “rapid urbanization in cities and the exacerbation of the urban heat island effect,” Baughman McLeod said people are unprepared for rising temperatures. However, cities also have the power to change this trajectory.

“In my opinion, cities have their hands on the levers that shape the warmth of cities and regions, the comfort of people in those cities and regions, but also the lever of many programs and strategies that can keep people safe when it’s hot,” Hondula said.


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