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City Infrastructure Must Evolve To Protect Residents From Extreme Heat

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

I bet you can name a hurricane or two - Ida, Sandy, Katrina. Now try naming a heat wave. Well, the thing is heat waves might not have names, but they are killing more people than hurricanes, floods or even wildfires in this country. In fact, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, heat is the No. 1 weather-related cause of death in the U.S.

DEBBIE STEPHENS BROWDER: Just hot all the time. There's not that distinct difference between summer and fall. It's like everything just kind of goes together now.

CORNISH: So Debbie Stephens Browder wanted to do something about it.

STEPHENS BROWDER: Of course, there are other problems, you know, with the water and things like that. But I'm starting with trees. That's where I'm starting.

CORNISH: She's a retired teacher and recently became a community organizer for an environmental advocacy group. It's called TreePeople.

STEPHENS BROWDER: And been talking to those that really don't know the importance of trees. And so they say, well, no, I'm not sure I want one. I take it as my personal challenge to change their mind.

CORNISH: Stephens Browder thinks of trees as a vital part of a city's infrastructure, meaning they're not just nice to have but that more trees in places like Watts, her South LA neighborhood, could actually save lives. NPR's Jonaki Mehta went to a recent TreePeople planting event in Watts.

JONAKI MEHTA, BYLINE: Extreme heat is no longer a threat of the future. It's here.

CHANNING SMITH: We'd have, like, I would say maybe about, like, a month during the summertime where it was, like, really, really hot.

MEHTA: Channing Smith has lived in South Los Angeles most of her life.

SMITH: And just now it's just - it's like you look up, and it's always blazing.

MEHTA: This noticeable shift is why Smith showed up at a tree planting event with her family...

SMITH: The goal is to take the pot from the tree, not the tree from the pot.

MEHTA: ...Including her 6-year-old daughter, Elle.

Why are you out here planting trees?

ELLE: You need to have oxygen and air.

MEHTA: That's probably how most people would answer. We need trees for oxygen, clean air. But here in Watts, residents also desperately need the shade.

STEPHENS BROWDER: It's life or death. It is not just about beautifying the community. It's about saving lives.

MEHTA: That's Debbie Stephens Browder again, the community organizer.

STEPHENS BROWDER: I have lived in this community my entire life, which would be 60 years. It was a lot cooler when I was younger.

MEHTA: Now she worries about her neighbors, especially the ones without air conditioning.

STEPHENS BROWDER: After five days of extreme heat, it's more likely that people will pass away from that type of heat, especially those with other conditions and those that are seniors like myself.

MEHTA: Watts' tree canopy is just about 5%, meaning that only 5% of the neighborhood is covered by shade from trees.

STEPHENS BROWDER: And so it is really important that we try to produce here as many trees as we can.

MEHTA: About 20 miles away in Beverly Hills, the tree canopy is nearly 25%, and that shade can cool surface temperatures by up to 45 degrees Fahrenheit. And like most parts of the country, it's Black and brown people who bear the brunt of the heat in LA.

STEPHENS BROWDER: Without the shade canopy, then we're just walking in the sun. You can really notice the difference even if you stand here in the shade and there in the sun.

MEHTA: So this group of volunteers are helping in the way they know best.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Awesome - maybe the bottom a little bit.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Good job, you guys.

MEHTA: More trees in the ground means a cooler, safer neighborhood because long summers like this one are here to stay.

CORNISH: NPR's Jonaki Mehta. We know a lot of people die from extreme heat every year, but getting an exact number - well, that's difficult.

JANE GILBERT: We have a increase in mortalities across the country in extreme heat days, but those aren't all recorded as heat-related mortality.

CORNISH: This is Jane Gilbert, and last year she became the first-ever chief heat officer for Miami-Dade County.

GILBERT: I've been here 26 years. I can feel the change. We have about a month or more of days over 90 degrees than we did when I moved here.

CORNISH: Now, back when she had a similar job for the City of Miami, she went door to door and spoke to residents in low-income areas about their concerns.

GILBERT: And the majority of those people spoke about heat and their concerns about heat a lot.

CORNISH: She says more people are moving downtown, and they need bike lanes, buses and sidewalks to get around. But all that existing infrastructure - it doesn't help much if it's too hot to use it.

GILBERT: If it's unshaded, it becomes prohibitive to be out there in that 104 heat index to wait for a bus. So it's actually part of our transportation network requirements to improve our tree canopy.

CORNISH: Local governments around the country are trying all kinds of things to keep people cool - painting streets white, installing cooling roofs, enhancing wind flow through buildings. All of that takes money, and federal funding is typically reserved for other climate disasters.

KRISTEN TORRES PAWLING: There aren't categories of extreme heat, so it's hard to prove. You can't say, here's 10 years of examples of why, say, more urban forest is going to be a good solution for us. And so many of the extreme heat interventions are new.

CORNISH: Kristen Torres Pawling is the sustainability program director for LA County, and she says she's been at times discouraged from applying for FEMA relief because there isn't a clear way to measure the toll that heat is taking.

TORRES PAWLING: We don't have the same sort of structures around heat emergencies, so that means it's hard to recognize and to fund and deploy resources around heat emergencies.

CORNISH: Structures like naming and documenting heat waves. Well, there is someone who's thinking about how to raise public and government recognition of extreme heat.

KATHY BAUGHMAN MCLEOD: I think the event in the Pacific Northwest was really a game-changer for American awareness of heat.

CORNISH: Remember that heat dome back in June? Hundreds of people died. Portland streetcar cables melted - major damage, no name. Kathy Baughman McLeod's team is currently developing a process for categorizing and naming heat waves. The hope is that federal agencies will recognize them the way they do hurricanes.

BAUGHMAN MCLEOD: We believe that, if we name heat waves and categorize them the way we do hurricanes, that we could universally raise the awareness and the preparation and create a culture of prevention for heat.

CORNISH: She's the director and senior vice president of the Adrienne Arsht-Rockefeller Foundation Resilience Center.

BAUGHMAN MCLEOD: The places most experiencing it are waking up and beginning to adopt policies. And I think we'll see more chief heat officers at the local government level in the U.S., more heat health task forces.

CORNISH: It's interesting because what you're describing, the creation of these offices, sounds like a kind of building up of a system - right? - like, kind of like the system we have around hurricanes or tropical storms. Is that what's been lacking when it comes to this issue?

BAUGHMAN MCLEOD: Well, if you think about it, heat has no owner. There is no heat agency. Like, FEMA has jurisdiction over floods, and the U.S. Forest Service has jurisdiction over fires. You know, there isn't anybody that you go to as the authority. It's everybody and nobody's problem. And I think that needs to change.

CORNISH: I guess I'm wondering, why do you think governments haven't treated heat in the same way they do other climate-related disasters?

BAUGHMAN MCLEOD: I think in part because of the interaction with heat with the human body. It's a health issue. Our estimate with models and current data show that 8,800 people were killed from heat in 2020. Four hundred and thirty were killed by hurricanes. So that's 20 times more people dying from heat in 2020, and the people dying are, for the most part, Black and brown communities and senior citizens. These are not people with immense political clout.

The other reason is that it doesn't relate to assets with value. And so when you think about what we insure, we insure things that the wind blows over or things that get flooded. And so insurance companies are really good at assessing and quantifying the risk of the building, the damage to the pier or whatever. But when we think about the damage to heat, it's not a common vocabulary that we're using in the way that we look at disasters the way FEMA does.

CORNISH: How do you determine an impact, an economic impact? Are you looking at, like, power usage? Are you looking at, you know, deaths? Kind of how do you figure that out?

BAUGHMAN MCLEOD: One of the best ways to do that is through worker productivity impacts, you know, thinking about someone who works in a farm field or driving a delivery truck and their exposure to heat. And when we get hot, we are tired. And we think more slowly, and we make mistakes. And so a lot of the economic impact is about the slowdown that happens from heat. And one of the biggest data sets is through worker's comp data, which is where workers get injured.

CORNISH: So you're saying when you have those big heat events, you see more worker accidents.

BAUGHMAN MCLEOD: A hundred percent, yes. So exponentially more accidents take place when it's hot. And so those things add up, and we calculated that to add up for 2020 to be $100 billion.

CORNISH: This seems like a silly question, but is there any way to prepare for the heat, so to speak, just, like, as a regular person?

BAUGHMAN MCLEOD: Well, one of the first things people can do is a personal heat risk assessment. You know, do you have additional vulnerability by your age, by any underlying health conditions? Do you have diabetes, heart conditions? And then think about, I'm going to need to curtail my activities outside when this heat event comes. So often unaware people go about their normal business of going running or hiking, or they think they can just power through the heat. And it's just more intense than it used to be. They're not accustomed to it, and it takes its toll.

And so you can get ready. That's a personal side. And then a community can get ready by notifying people that it's coming, going door to door like an urban search and rescue style of going to places where you know the most vulnerable people are - senior citizens, people living alone on a fixed income. And you can provide generators for cooling. You can provide community centers with extra air conditioning. So there are lots of things that can be done in advance.

CORNISH: You're making it sound like it's not too late.

BAUGHMAN MCLEOD: It's not. We can absolutely do this. People do not have to die of heat. They should not die of heat. We have the policies we need, the interventions, all of the evidence base. We got money. We need to stop emitting greenhouse gases immediately, but we can protect people from heat. This is doable.

CORNISH: That's Kathy Baughman McLeod, director and senior vice president of the Adrienne Arsht-Rockefeller Foundation Resilience Center.

Thanks for your time.

BAUGHMAN MCLEOD: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF KAKI KING'S "SAD AMERICAN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.