Phoenix could see the deadliest year for heat deaths after a scorching summer

With 22 days hitting 110F or higher, suspected heat deaths in the Arizona capital hit 450 Extreme heat contributed to as many as 450 deaths in the Phoenix area this summer, in what could be the deadliest year on record for a desert city in Arizona. Medical examiners for the Maricopa region, which includes Phoenix, have so far confirmed 284 heat-related deaths, while an investigation into another 169 heat-related deaths is ongoing. The highest number of deaths – and emergency hospital visits – coincided with the hottest days and nights.

Temperatures hit 110F or higher on 22 days this year, but it was only the 20th hottest summer on record, according to the National Weather Service (NWS). It didn't drop below 80F on 75% of the nights between June and August. The effects of heat are cumulative and the body cannot begin to recover until the temperature drops below 80F. Overall, the heat death toll is thought to be 36% higher than the same period last year, although a good rainy season helped keep temperatures – and heat deaths – down from late July. And while heat will be ruled out in some cases, the 2022 total looks to surpass last year's record highs.

"Deaths tend to increase during our hottest days, especially when combined with very warm nights," said Marvin Percha, meteorologist with NWS Phoenix. "Long-term increases in summer temperatures appear to play at least some role in the increase in the number of heat-related deaths over the years."

Phoenix, Arizona's capital and the nation's fifth-largest city, with 1.6 million people, is used to a hot desert climate, but temperatures are rising due to global warming and urban development, which have created vast islands of asphalt and concrete heat. traps heat especially at night. In recent years, daily highs have been smashed frequently and this year the city broke three day and nine night records. 911 calls for heat-related medical emergencies were up 13% compared to last year. Heat deaths are preventable, but have more than doubled since 2016, and not just from heat. Phoenix is ​​also one of the fastest growing and most expensive cities in the US, with a shortage of affordable housing and a rapidly growing homeless population.

According to the district's annual tally, there were 5,029 people sleeping on the streets in January – three times the number of people unprotected compared to 2016. Being outside without shade and adequate water increases the risk of medical complications and exposure to deadly heat. Although several new shelters have opened this year, the situation has gotten worse. Across town, there were men and women sleeping soundly in parks, parking lots and shop doors, and behind dumpsters and along canals. Last week, outreach workers counted 1,006 people sleeping in tents, under temporary shelters or on the ground in just one relatively dense downtown area known as a zone, where many of the city's shelters and homeless services are concentrated. On very hot days it can reach 160F on the asphalt where people camp.

"There's a lot of new energy and effort around long-term housing solutions, but the massive systems needed to end homelessness are not moving quickly," said Amy Schwabenlender, executive director of Campus Human Services in the zone.

The eviction rate in the Maricopa region is higher than pre-pandemic levels, and inflation hit 13% in Phoenix last month — a record for any city in the US according to 20 years of data. One in five confirmed heat deaths this year occurred indoors, and early reports suggest the soaring cost of living may have played a role as 80% of victims did not have working air conditioning. However, this year's high death toll is worrying given the cooling monsoon rains and the city's first-ever coordinated effort to reduce heat deaths, involving more than a dozen agencies in addition to a group of non-profit and grassroots activists.

"It's not just about heat, it's a multifactorial problem that requires more coordination and creativity to structure the different parts of the solution portfolio," said David Hondula, who leads the first extreme heat office in the city - and North America. “Messaging alone isn't going to help, nor is it going to be handing out water bottles or investing in housing alone.”

Addressing the complex and interrelated issues that increase the risk of heat emergencies – lack of affordable housing, homelessness, substance abuse, inflation, inadequate shelter and rising temperatures – will take time, money and political will. Meanwhile, Hondula's hot team will dig through data from 2022 to figure out which services or interventions are saving lives and should be expanded, and which should be reformed or phased out. Hondula added: “This is not the place we want to be; our goal is zero deaths.”

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