Phoenix tries to offset rising temperatures that pose health risks to the most vulnerable

Last year set a record for heat-related deaths in the United States, and this year is already shaping up to be worse in terms of high temperatures. Stephanie Sy reports from Phoenix in Maricopa County, Arizona, which has been at the center of heat-related deaths, and where rising homelessness in recent years is making even more people vulnerable to extreme heat.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Last year set a record for heat-related deaths in the United States. And this year is already shaping up to be worse in terms of high temperatures.

    Stephanie Sy is back now with this report from Phoenix in Maricopa County, Arizona, which has been at the center of heat-related deaths and where rising homelessness in recent years is making even more people vulnerable to extreme heat.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Clay Hatfield has been living in this tent on a sidewalk in downtown Phoenix for the last three months. He's 69.

  • Clay Hatfield, Phoenix Resident:

    So, I keep the table covered with a towel so the table doesn't get hot. And then when I got towels I will put over the chair, so it doesn't get hot. Try to cut down all the radiant heat that I can.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    When we visited him in early June, it got up to 100 degrees and he was bracing for hotter days to come. But you can only weatherproof a tent so much.

  • Clay Hatfield:

    I'm not going to get it to a comfortable level. What I am hoping to do is achieve a livable level; 110 is going to kill me; 90, I can live with.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Have you thought about going to a shelter during the summer months?

  • Clay Hatfield:

    Well, here's the problem with the shelters is, at about 5:00 or 6:00 in the morning, you have to leave the shelter. So then, in the hot, miserable time of the day, you're out on the street with nowhere to go.

    I tried it, and it was miserable.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    There is somewhere he can go. His tent is just a few hundred yards from a daytime center for homeless seniors. Even a short walk in this heat can scald the soles of your shoes.

    At the Justice Center, Hatfield can get a meal in a cold shower.

  • Debra Hernandez, Phoenix Resident:

    If I wasn't able to come here and sit and get water and just cool off and stay out of the heat, I wouldn't make it, because I'm that sensitive to the heat.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Wouldn't be able to make it is not hyperbole. The elderly and unhoused are among the most vulnerable to heat-related illness and death.

    But Debra Hernandez has the added risk factor of a serious heart condition.

  • Debra Hernandez:

    I'm extremely concerned, because I have already passed out once just from the heat, and I was not in the direct sun.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    She only recently became homeless.

  • Debra Hernandez:

    The house that I was living in, I was renting, was sold. I was hit by a drunk driver. So I lost my car. I went and rented a hotel room. I was paying up $2,200 a month just for a hotel room.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    As she waits for the insurance claim on her wrecked car to be paid, she's just trying to survive her first summer without housing.

    Heat is an annual emergency here. The firefighters and paramedics in Phoenix who we spent a few June afternoons with frequently respond to heat distress calls, says Captain Chris Marini.

  • Capt. Chris Martini, Phoenix Fire Department:

    On those days where you mix it in with not drinking, not having proper nutrition, and then also possibly alcohol or drugs, it's really easy where people just become altered, and now they can't take care of themselves, and they just start overheating real fast.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    In recent years, the homeless have accounted for about half of the total deaths associated with heat in Maricopa County; 2020 was a screaming alarm for officials here.

    One of the state's driest and hottest summers on record was also its deadliest, over 520 deaths linked to heat, twice the number of fatalities reported nationally from all other natural disasters combined.

    David Hondula, Director, Office of Heat Response and Mitigation: How are we doing this morning? Feeling OK? I see you got some shade there.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    In response, the city of Phoenix created a new office, appointing health and climate scientists David Hondula as a sort of heat czar. It's the first publicly funded position of its kind in the country.

  • David Hondula:

    The illness statistics would suggest that, in general, we are not meeting the need yet for heat relief in our community. We have seen increasing numbers of heat-associated deaths, a 400 percent increase since 2014.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Soon after taking the job, Hondula realized that he can't solve heat deaths without addressing homelessness.

  • David Hondula:

    Our best estimate is that individuals experiencing homelessness in Maricopa County are at about 200 times higher risk of suffering heat-associated illness or death than folks who have regular, stable housing.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    And while having outreach workers hand out water and sunscreen can't hurt, Hondula says those and even the cooling centers are only Band-Aids.

  • David Hondula:

    We need to be thinking about housing affordability. We need to be thinking about drug and alcohol rehabilitation and recovery. We need to be thinking about just simply more shelters for folks in the city.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Climate change models say Phoenix should expect more super hot days.

  • David Hondula:

    The projections suggest that our hottest days are days that are in the 115 to 220 degree range right now, could become four, five, six, seven degrees Fahrenheit hotter over the next several decades. That's, of course, a great concern because those hottest days are absolutely the most dangerous.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    In Phoenix, they're also piloting new technologies to try to lower the temperatures in these neighborhoods. They have begun spraying a reflective coating on certain city streets. Early data shows that the temperature on this surface is considerably lower than on traditional asphalt.

  • David Hondula:

    We could actually wind up with a Phoenix of the future that's cooler than the one we have today, even if global warming continues, so that gives us motivation to invest in and experiment with technologies like cool pavement that our street Transportation Department is applying.

    We have more miles of cool pavement here than any other city in North America.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    But the low-tech tactic that may make the biggest impact is planting more trees. Leafy trees not only provide shade. The water they take in, for example, through the city's flood irrigation system, is given back as moisture and cooling to the air, a process called evapotranspiration.

  • Joaquin Murrieta, Watershed Management Group:

    The trees we're planting here, most of them are native to the Sonoran Desert.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    At Borman Elementary School in West Phoenix, Joaquin Murrieta, a cultural ecologist, is helping out at a tree planting event run by a group of local NGOs.

  • Joaquin Murrieta:

    Imagine when he rains in Phoenix, our water, where does it go? It's a lot of water that flows on the streets, so we can guide that water to rain gardens along the streets with bases that will hold that water, with native plants, with native trees. So, eventually, we can transform our city to be a green city.

    Aimee Esposito of the Phoenix-based group Trees Matter says planting canopy in underserved communities and schools should be a priority.

  • Aimee Esposito, Executive Director, Trees Matter:

    We're trying to address where we plant trees from an equity standpoint. And so we're looking at, where do we plant trees where trees are not currently invested in as much?

  • Stephanie Sy:

    You don't have to look far to see that socioeconomically disadvantaged neighborhoods have less shade compared to more affluent areas. Phoenix's City Council recently allocated $6 million of leftover COVID rescue money to fund tree planting.

    But David Hondula's Heat Office is fighting an uphill battle with urban development. Phoenix is one of the fastest growing cities in the country. It's already what experts call a heat island, where the lack of shade, combined with heat-absorbing asphalt, can make it 10 degrees warmer than surrounding areas.

    You're trying to build a heat-resistant metropolis in the middle of Sonoran Desert. Is that even realistic?

  • David Hondula:

    When we look at what climate models suggest we can do with our built environment, when we think about technologies that are becoming available, when we're thinking about low-hanging fruit in terms of how we might be able to just nudge behaviors a little bit to be safer in our heat, we think there's a lot of opportunity ahead for how this can be a thriving, sustainable city decades and centuries into the future.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    But that kind of transformation will take decades of investment and political will. For now, the need for cooling centers has grown so much that faith-based organizations are needed to help meet demand.

    The Justice Center depends on donations.

    What does the cooling center mean for your daily life during the summer?

  • Clay Hatfield:

    I wouldn't — I wouldn't have survived without it.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Here, charity means not only feeding the poor and giving them water to drink, but providing air-conditioned refuge from the relentless summer heat.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Stephanie Sy in Phoenix.

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