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California Heat Wave Death Toll Rises

July 28, 2006 at 6:30 PM EDT

JIM LEHRER: And finally tonight, the deadly impact of the California heat wave. Jeffrey Brown has our story.

JEFFREY BROWN: For the first time in two weeks, the temperature across most of California fell just below 100 degrees today. But the death toll from the record-breaking heat wave continued to rise.

PHIL LARSON, Chair, Fresno Board of Supervisors: It’s straining our emergency resources terribly. Our emergency resources are at full tilt and trying to stay up with it.

JEFFREY BROWN: Hardest hit was the central valley, where the thermometer spiked at 115 degrees earlier this week. More than 20 suspected heat-related deaths are under investigation in Fresno alone. Most of the victims were elderly.

DR. DALE ROBBINS, Kern County Medical Center: All of the body’s systems, the cardio-respiratory system, the nervous system, can be impaired and can basically shut down.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yesterday, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger visited a center in Los Angeles where residents could come to cool off. He warned that more heat could be on the way.

GOV. ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER (R), California: Let’s all work together now this summer, because there will be a few heat waves coming. There is people like us all here that are, you know, fit and we can handle if all of a sudden our air conditioning goes out or if something goes wrong at the house, but there’s a lot of vulnerable citizens that can’t because they’re sick and they’re fragile.

JEFFREY BROWN: Some county officials around the state said there wasn’t enough done to prevent the deaths.

HENRY PEREA, Fresno County Supervisor: We needed to raise the level of awareness, and in my mind we didn’t do that soon enough.

Agriculture and energy

JEFFREY BROWN: The heat has taken a large toll on the state's agricultural industry.

CALIFORNIA FARMER: They're beyond raisins. There's nothing left there.

JEFFREY BROWN: Crops are scorched, and farmers have lost livestock by the thousands.

In the meantime, as people struggle to cope with the heat, records have been set for energy consumption, putting a major strain on the electrical system.

And for more, we get an update from Dr. Mark Horton, the state's public health officer, and Fresno Mayor Alan Autry.

Starting with you, Dr. Horton, the Associated Press is reporting more than 130 deaths so far, and that's based on reports from county coroners. Does that jive with your numbers?

MARK HORTON, California State Public Health Officer: It does generally. What we're noticing is 63 confirmed deaths, another 53 deaths that are highly suspected or probable deaths from the heat wave.

JEFFREY BROWN: And based on what you're hearing now, are you expecting the toll to rise?

MARK HORTON: We're hoping very much that, because there's been some mitigation of the heat wave here, that we'll begin to see those numbers drop.

JEFFREY BROWN: Anecdotally, Dr. Horton, what's known about where and how people are dying? It is mostly the elderly?

MARK HORTON: There are a number of vulnerable groups. Of course, the frail, elderly are a large group. But also otherwise healthy but chronically disease-impacted individuals, those with cardio-respiratory diseases, those with lung diseases are particularly vulnerable and, of course, very young children.

Agricultural workers that are required to work out in the fields are certainly vulnerable, and our numbers are bearing that out. We've only had one death that we know of in an agricultural worker, but as you've mentioned many of those are in the elderly, frail community.

Most vulnerable

JEFFREY BROWN: Mayor Autry, what has it been like for you in Fresno, in terms of who has been most vulnerable?

ALAN AUTRY, Mayor of Fresno: Well, it's been a tough, tough time, there's no doubt about that. And absolutely the elderly, as was mentioned by the doctor, have been severely hit. It's tough on everybody, but also the courageous elderly.

You know, we get a lot of folks that went through the Great Depression and World War II, and they think that they can still get through something like this and this killer heat -- when I call it killer heat, anything over 110 is really, really killer heat.

And a walk down to the mailbox, just everyday chores outside could prove fatal for elderly. And that's the communication challenge we have, that no matter how good of shape you think you're in, whether you're a young person, old person, but in particular the elderly, you have to watch it, because the amount of time that you can spend out in the heat, from 105 to 110, is greatly decreased; from 110 to 115, it's very, very minimal the amount of time you can spend out in that type of heat and get by with it.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, Mayor, what are you able to do for the elderly, the poor, the ones who are in the most danger, in terms of taking care of them or even just checking up on them?

ALAN AUTRY: Well, you hit a key point. The number one thing is checking up on folks, because at a time like this we turn into one big citywide and one big countywide neighborhood watch. Check in on one another; check in on your family members; check in on that elderly person you may not have said a word to for the last five years, but you know the situation.

Go knock on the door. Make sure they understand there are cooling centers available in the city. We have 10 community centers that we turned into cooling centers. We had eight swimming pools that let folks come in free.

I've deployed 24 natural gas buses to our most remote areas of our county to act as kind of mobile mini-cooling units. And also, if you can't get there -- you know, some folks can't even make it down the street to get into one of the neighborhood centers -- we have rides available free.

621-HEAT is our line here in Fresno, where a cab or a handy ride -- the handy ride is the transportation vehicle that comes and get folks who cannot get around, folks who may be in a wheelchair, so on and so forth -- to give a ride to one of these cooling centers.

But I think the awareness thing is the most important thing. You know, it wasn't too long ago -- I can remember in Chicago -- where hundreds, hundreds of folks died in a heat wave and, again, the majority were the elderly.

JEFFREY BROWN: Dr. Horton, a medical question to pick up on that so people understand. Is it the length of the period of the heat wave, or is the intensity of the heat that leads to deaths? What is it?

MARK HORTON: It's really three primary factors. It's the height of the temperature, the humidity, and the length of the heat wave. All three of those things compound each other to have a huge health impact on the population.

State regulations

JEFFREY BROWN: So, Dr. Horton, I know the state has put in some regulations to protect workers. Tell us what's being done.

MARK HORTON: A year ago, the governor put into place emergency regulations to protect agricultural workers. This is to ensure that employers of workers out in the field provided those workers shelter, break time, and water and fluids to make sure that they could keep up their hydration.

We're just celebrating the one-year anniversary of the implementation of those. They have now been made permanent. And we think we're already seeing an impact of the implementation of the governor's regulations.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, Mayor, we had heard reports that some of your trauma centers and hospitals were very severely taxed, that you had to divert even some patients that weren't suffering from trauma or burns. Is it under control now?

ALAN AUTRY: No, I've never heard of any of those reports. I think those are false. There was a situation at the coroner's office, because that office has not expanded with the population. But as far as serving folks and having facilities available to cool them down, treat them in case of heat stroke, that's not been a situation here.

I think what you're seeing, sadly, is a politicization of this issue in some corners. You know, we're in the middle of an election year out here in California. Nothing is sacred, even a killer heat wave like this.

And I will tell you, I've differed with this governor on several issues, but he's done everything possible during this heat wave to provide resources. The fact of the matter is, to declare a state of emergency would be just to get political points.

All of the resources we have at the city level and the county level are sufficient to treat the situation. It's a matter of awareness. You've got to be able to take some steps to get to the centers, to call for help, to do the neighborhood watch, and we have the resources to do that.

But I will tell you one point, and it's sad point, and it's something we're going to have to address, is we have a lot of the elderly they are not turning on their air conditioning because they simply can't afford it. That's sad when that could be a death sentence. You have to choose between food on your table and cool air to keep you alive.

Now, that's a question we need to look at, not only here in the San Joaquin Valley and the state of California, but across this nation.

Preparation for more heat waves

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Dr. Horton, as you look ahead, we heard the governor in our setup talking about, of course, the potential for more heat waves to come. And there are the inevitable but important questions about how prepared you are for this particular kind of natural disaster. Have you learned some lessons here? Do you feel you are prepared?

MARK HORTON: I think we've learned some lessons, and I think we're much better prepared than we were in the past. I think that communities have done a great job of stepping forward and being able to quickly identified cooling centers, identify transportation from sites to these cooling centers, to mobilize the resources necessary to be able to knock on doors and identify those vulnerable groups.

I think we'll be prepared now with future heat waves to know that those are exactly the kind of steps that need to be mobilized, and I think local communities are better prepared now, and I think the governor has given some clear directives that have helped us ensure that those vulnerable populations are identified.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, Mayor Autry, we only have about 30 seconds. Same question?

ALAN AUTRY: Yes, I think you always learn, you know, sadly, from your toughest lessons. But this whole thing that there's somehow something that could be done on a grand scale that could have prevented this, you can't not dictate Mother Nature, that you're going to have a heat wave like this.

The local officials here and the local communities rallied here. We do have the mobile centers, the community centers, the cooling areas. The education campaign is going on. You always look at things that you could do better; we'll certainly do that.

But it's far from any kind of neglect. I can't say anything that the governor or anybody else could have done to really significantly impact what's gone on here.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Mayor Alan Autry and Dr. Mark Horton, thanks very much, and good luck.

ALAN AUTRY: Thank you.