Reviews | Extreme heat is no joke. It is a public health crisis.
Now consider the hundreds of people living — and trying to sleep — in tents pitched on the heat-absorbing tarmac and concrete surface along an off-the-beaten-path slice of downtown Phoenix. It’s a dystopian scene that takes place just outside the overcrowded Central Vault, largely unseen by most of the townspeople. Across Maricopa County, according to a count earlier this year, more than 5,000 people live on these now hellish streets.
Under an extreme heat warning, Thursday is expected to peak at 112 degrees. Friday: 109. The 10-day outlook? Within 100 all the way.
Amid a heat wave that’s searing Phoenix and much of the Southwest and Midwest, we can have fun laughing at the sun — frying eggs on the sidewalk, enjoying baked cookies on the chalkboard. board, post memes — or we can choose to face the heat for what it is: an urgent public health crisis.
The heat makes life a perpetual misery, not only for those living on the streets, but also for anyone with little money or trapped in substandard housing. The heat makes people sick. Heat kills. And more people in each of the past five years have been hospitalized and died in Arizona due to heat, largely due to climate change.
Nightfall did not bring much relief. One night during the current heat wave, the temperature did not drop below 90 degrees – the earliest of the year that has ever occurred in Phoenix, according to Isaac Smith, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service. But most of the 113 cooling stations in Phoenix and elsewhere in Maricopa County don’t stay open overnight.
If your air conditioner breaks down – or if you’re like the four construction workers I met this week in the trailer they share in West Phoenix, who can only afford to run the air conditioning for a few hours a day – you’re out of luck.
I sat down to talk to them around 5 p.m., when the heat is at its peak, beating from above and radiating from the sidewalk. They were eating rice and eggs, their first meal since leaving home for work at 3 a.m., they said. The front door was open to let in some fresh air. Curtains were drawn at each window to keep out the sun. It was as hot inside as it was outside.
Mobile homes make up 6% of homes in the vast Maricopa County, but the people who live there accounted for 30% of all indoor heat-related deaths between 2008 and 2018. David Hondula, who leads the Heat Response and Mitigation Office in Phoenix, told me that people who live in mobile homes “run into some interesting service affordability gaps.”
In less carefully bureaucratic terms: Economic prosperity in Arizona than Governor Doug Ducey (R) love not everything reached them.
Phoenix is one of the first cities in the nation to have an office focused on heat response and mitigation, and Hondula, a professor of environmental science at Arizona State University, is its first director. “The scale of the challenge,” he says, “is significant.”
One obstacle: The fiercely competitive real estate market makes it difficult for the city to find available buildings and land to open more cooling centers.
Then there is the plan to achieve 25% tree cover by 2030. The project has fallen significantly behind schedule, although Hondula said there is now money and political will invested in the achievement of this objective.
The city also invests in “cool pavement” (an asphalt surface that reflects more sunlight and absorbs less heat), uses federal dollars to protect mobile homes from the elements, and works with more than 30 organizations to obtain help: drinking water, cold towels, hats and sunscreen — in the hands of those who need it.
Helping people get off the streets, out of mobile homes, and into safe and reliable housing options would be a much bigger win than putting bottles of water in their hands. But weak tenant protections are fueling stubbornly high eviction rates in a state that has one of the lowest affordable housing stocks in the nation.
“There’s a lack of political will, fundamentally, to deal with those who don’t have money,” said Stacey Champion, a community activist who has volunteered her time for many years to address disparities. of Phoenix.
Of the city’s many disparities, the most dangerous right now is the temperature gap between those in safely air-conditioned spaces and those left in the unforgiving sun.