Massive heat wave heading for USA next week. Cities have been preparing for this.

Updated

Forecasters warn a dangerous and potentially record-breaking heat wave will spread across much of the central and eastern U.S. next week, a moment health officials have been dreading and preparing for.

The incoming heat could set records from Texas to New England and will put people not prepared for the extreme temperatures at risk. For folks who live where an excessive heat warning goes into effect, there will be "a high risk of heat stress or illnesses for anyone without effective cooling and/or adequate hydration," the National Weather Service said.

The stakes are high: Every day of extreme heat in the United States claims about 154 lives, according to a 2022 study. And climate change is supercharging the risk, as shown by an alarming 12-month run of global heat records.

But officials across the U.S. have been planning ahead about how they will keep vulnerable residents cool. That includes children or elderly people, people with underlying health issues such as diabetes or heart disease, those without air conditioning, unhoused residents and outdoor workers.

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“Cities have no choice but to have already been thinking about this,” Kevin Lanza, an assistant professor of environmental science at UTHealth Houston, in Austin, told USA TODAY. “This is not only our Sun Belt – cities that are in traditionally warm climates. This is also in these cities and places when you think cold.”

The plans include a state heat officer in Arizona, distributing free air conditioners in Oregon and early heat warnings in New Jersey.

In some areas, next week will become the first major test this year of local officials' preparation: "For many, this will be the first heat wave of the year," AccuWeather meteorologist Brandon Buckingham said.

The central and eastern U.S. are both forecast to see above-average temperatures next week. The darkest red area shows where hot temperatures are most likely.
The central and eastern U.S. are both forecast to see above-average temperatures next week. The darkest red area shows where hot temperatures are most likely.

Excessive heat is most likely in the Ohio Valley and Mid-Atlantic, the Climate Prediction Center said. "Highs in the low- to mid-90s are forecast, possibly reaching daily record highs in many locations," the Center said on X, formerly Twitter.

In Washington, D.C., next week, "heat indices should easily reach and exceed the century mark most afternoons," the weather service said.

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A person rides a bicycle as heat waves shimmer, causing visual distortion, as people walk in the 'The Zone', Phoenix's largest homeless encampment, amid the city's worst heat wave on record on July 25, 2023 in Phoenix, Arizona. Cities must plan to mitigate the effects of worsening temperatures in hotter, longer summer months.
A person rides a bicycle as heat waves shimmer, causing visual distortion, as people walk in the 'The Zone', Phoenix's largest homeless encampment, amid the city's worst heat wave on record on July 25, 2023 in Phoenix, Arizona. Cities must plan to mitigate the effects of worsening temperatures in hotter, longer summer months.

Heat plans kick into gear as dangerous heat starts

You don't have to live in the desert in the middle of summer for heat to be life-threatening. In fact, Maryland health officials already announced their first heat-related death of the year with the death of 59-year-old man in Prince George's County, near Washington, D.C.

As summer heat ramps up, so does concern from health officials.

The New Jersey Department of Health warned residents this week to prepare now for heat waves. "Don't wait until heat arrives to begin protecting yourself," a social media post said. California's Occupational and Safety Health Administration heat standards kicked in as temperature soared. And the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently launched a nationwide tracker to check for health risks from heat down to the ZIP code level.

(It's worth noting, however, that some states like Texas and now Florida, have moved to weaken protections for outdoor workers against sweltering heat.)

Some areas are trying more extreme measures

Wellness checks for people who are vulnerable and reminders about pet and child safety may be mainstays of public health policy during the summer. But now, officials have turned to creative solutions in some parts of the nation:

  • Text message warnings: The California Office of Emergency Services uses text messaging and social media to alert people of hot temperatures that can be dangerous to health, particularly for those who work outdoors, are unhoused or may be at greater risk because of prior medical issues, said spokesperson Amy Palmer. The state office also has an action plan for people to prepare for extreme heat.

  • Free AC program: In light of a deadly 2021 heat dome that went over the Pacific Northwest for days, people in Portland, Oregon, can call 311 to request free AC units ahead of hotter temperatures. The 2021 extreme heat event resulted in nearly 70 deaths in Multnomah County, where Portland is located. The majority of people who died were elderly, alone and without AC.

  • Ice-filled human-size bags: First responders in Phoenix are using "ice immersion" to quickly cool people who get sick from heat, the Arizona Republic, part of the USA TODAY Network, reported. The plastic bags are filled with water and ice to submerge people who are overheating with body temperatures above 104 degrees before they get to the hospital. The Phoenix Fire Department first tested the technique last summer and is deploying it this year.

  • A "chief heat officer" for a state: Arizona, notorious for its brutal desert heat, has inaugural a chief heat officer, the first of any state to have any such position. Chief Heat Officer Eugene Livar, a longtime epidemiologist in the state Department of Health, will implement Gov. Katie Hobbs' extreme heat preparedness plan and work across agencies to coordinate responses, according to the Arizona Republic.

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Heat preparations in hot regions include cooling centers, warnings

For portions of the country where extreme heat is a way of life – places like Jacksonville, Florida, and Las Vegas – summer heat plans have become increasingly robust.

In Jacksonville humidity poses additional risks that exacerbate heat levels in a state that's already scorching. And Las Vegas is struggling with overnight lows that never get all that cool.

Current heat index conditions

Local health officials say they take the risks seriously. “When we know things are coming, we have to be prepared,” said Dr. Sunil Joshi, who started as Jacksonville’s first-ever health officer position last summer, when the area saw seven consecutive days of heat indices jumping into 110 degrees.

The city is updating its existing plan to respond to extreme heat, which led to the opening of several cooling centers across Jacksonville, one of the largest U.S. cities by area. They included several libraries and a gymnasium. Preparations attempt to account for socially vulnerable communities, which include people who are homeless or those who don’t have working AC.

In Las Vegas, Clark County officials try to help vulnerable residents and tourists unaccustomed to how quickly heat ramps up. Daily highs can quickly build from the 80s to well over 100 within days, Commissioner Michael Naft said.

With temperatures that hot, the county sees several cases of burns in the trauma center from the pavement’s heat.

“You have to depend on people to adjust their behavior and their patterns pretty quickly,” he said. “That's something that's always hard as well.”

Meanwhile, experts say adapting to extreme heat will require structural changes to how cities are built.

Lanza, of UTHealth Houston, has pointed to reshaping cities to avoid a phenomenon called heat island effect: hotter conditions in some areas that have more pavement, dark surfaces and fewer trees. Reversing this requires changing how cities are designed, painting sun-reflective roofs or even planting green spaces above buildings.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Heat wave in forecast for USA: Cities try to keep residents safe

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