Urban Heat Preparedness Plans: Are They Adequate in an Ever-Warming Globe?

by Gabriel Martinez
Heat Preparedness

Natural disasters often hit with a dramatic force — be it devastating hurricanes or destructive tornadoes — yet, heat remains a more lethal threat.

The city of Chicago experienced this harsh reality in 1995. A week of intense heat soaring up to 106 degrees Fahrenheit (41 degrees Celsius) claimed the lives of over 700 individuals in July that year. Most fatalities were concentrated in impoverished, predominantly Black neighborhoods, where the elderly or isolated struggled without adequate ventilation or air conditioning. An overburdened power grid leading to blackouts only exacerbated the situation.

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Post this catastrophe, Chicago’s initial lackluster response gave way to comprehensive emergency heat response plans, including widespread public alert systems and assistance for the most vulnerable. Cities such as Los Angeles, Miami, and Phoenix have followed suit, appointing “chief heat officers” to manage heat-related risks. Similar measures have been adopted by cities and countries globally.

Yet, experts express concerns that these steps may fall short in a world consistently breaking heat records and maintaining inequality in vulnerability.

“I am not aware of a single city that is truly ready for the worst-case scenario that some climate scientists predict,” stated Eric Klinenberg, a social sciences professor at New York University and author of a book on the Chicago heatwave.

The accuracy of forecasting has improved over time, contributing to better heat preparedness. Along with meteorologists, journalists, and government officials, cities like Chicago are striving to raise awareness about impending dangers. But strategies effective in one city may falter in another due to unique architectural, transportation, layout, and inequity factors, according to Bharat Venkat, an associate professor at UCLA who oversees the university’s Heat Lab.

Venkat advocates for addressing inequality through investment in labor rights, sustainable development, and more, arguing that the cost of inaction is greater than the expenses of these initiatives.

After the 2003 heatwave in France, estimated to have caused 15,000 deaths, primarily elderly without air conditioning, the country established a heat watch warning system. Last month, Germany commenced a campaign against heatwave fatalities, drawing inspiration from France.

The city of Ahmedabad in India witnessed over 1,300 deaths during the 2010 heatwave with temperatures exceeding 118 degrees Fahrenheit (48 degrees Celsius). Today, city officials have a heat action plan and even simpler initiatives, such as painting roofs white to reflect sunlight.

Ladd Keith, an assistant professor at the University of Arizona, praised the Code Red Extreme Heat alerts in Baltimore as an exemplar of a well-structured alert system. Meanwhile, Inkyu Han, an environmental health scientist at Temple University, highlighted the ongoing struggle to make cooling aids accessible in poorer neighborhoods and suggested improvements such as enhancing tree canopies.

In Miami, where climate change threatens sea level rise, flooding, hurricanes, and extreme heat, a heat officer was appointed two years ago to develop heat protection strategies.

There are federal laws to prevent heat shutdowns in cold climates, but Robin Bachin, an associate professor at the University of Miami, noted a similar requirement for cooling is absent, posing a particular risk to low-income populations.

Klinenberg warns of potentially serious trouble in the future due to weak electrical grids susceptible to high demand and persisting social inequities. He explains that social issues that increase the deadly impact of heatwaves are only worsening, particularly in “depleted” neighborhoods with weak social ties and limited gathering spaces.

Noboru Nakamura, a professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Chicago, acknowledges the improvements made by Chicago but also recognizes inequality as a persistent challenge.

“A systemic issue of resource inequality isn’t something that can be eradicated overnight. We still face the same issue we had back then,” Nakamura said. “So that aspect is a significant, unresolved problem.”

O’Malley contributed to this report from Philadelphia.

Follow Melina Walling on Twitter @MelinaWalling.

Big Big News’ climate and environmental coverage is supported by several private foundations. You can learn more about AP’s climate initiative here. The AP holds full responsibility for all content.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Heat Preparedness

What happened in Chicago in 1995?

In July 1995, Chicago experienced a lethal weeklong heatwave with temperatures reaching 106 degrees Fahrenheit (41 degrees Celsius). The heatwave resulted in more than 700 deaths, predominantly in poor and largely Black neighborhoods, where residents, particularly the elderly and isolated, lacked proper ventilation or air conditioning.

How have cities been adapting to handle extreme heat?

Post the 1995 heatwave, Chicago has developed comprehensive emergency heat response plans, including widespread public alerts and targeted assistance for the most vulnerable. Cities like Los Angeles, Miami, and Phoenix have appointed “chief heat officers” to manage planning and response for dangerous heat. Similar measures have been adopted globally.

What are the limitations of current heat preparedness strategies?

While heat preparedness has generally improved, experts warn that current measures might not be enough in a world that is consistently breaking heat records. Inequalities in vulnerability persist, and the specific needs of each city, due to factors such as unique architecture and infrastructure, require tailored approaches.

What role does social inequality play in heatwave preparedness?

Social inequality plays a significant role in heatwave preparedness. Poorer neighborhoods, often with significant numbers of elderly and isolated individuals, tend to be more vulnerable to heatwaves due to less access to adequate cooling and ventilation. Inequalities also exist in access to information and resources for coping with extreme heat.

What are some examples of heat preparedness measures in other countries?

France established a heat watch warning system after a 2003 heatwave resulted in 15,000 deaths, primarily among the elderly without air conditioning. In India, the city of Ahmedabad has a heat action plan and encourages simple initiatives like painting roofs white to reflect sunlight, following a lethal heatwave in 2010.

What steps are being taken in Miami, a city highly vulnerable to climate change?

Miami appointed a heat officer two years ago to develop strategies to keep people safe from the heat. This move reflects the city’s vulnerability to climate change threats such as sea level rise, flooding, hurricanes, and extreme heat.

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CityLiving101 July 9, 2023 - 12:21 pm

We’ve been talking about this for years!! Cities aren’t built to handle extreme heat – look at how we design our buildings and our streets, it’s all concrete! Concrete absorbs heat, doesn’t it? It just doesn’t make sense…

SaveTheEarth July 9, 2023 - 1:13 pm

its scary to think that we might not be doing enough, even now. With heat records being broken left and right, we really need to step up our game. Climate change isnt waiting for us!

CalmBeforeStorm July 9, 2023 - 5:44 pm

Climate change is coming at us like a freight train. It’s gonna get worse before it gets better, if it gets better. Heat waves are just the beginning. Stay safe everyone, prepare as much as you can!

Jake_Stewart July 9, 2023 - 6:19 pm

Wow, who would’ve thought heat could be such a big killer? Like, I always thought hurricanes and earthquakes were the big bad natural disasters. It’s crazy…

Justice4All July 10, 2023 - 8:18 am

The fact that the poor and minorities are hit the hardest is just not fair. We should all have access to cooling in the summer, just like heating in the winter. It’s a basic human right, isn’t it??

LifelongChicagoan July 10, 2023 - 9:59 am

I remember that 95 heatwave, worst time of my life. No one was ready for it, the city was completely overwhelmed. We’ve improved, but not sure if it’s enough. I really hope we dont have to face that again.


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