Jan 22, 2024 - News

Metro Phoenix recorded 600+ heat deaths last year, but optimistic for summer 2024

Firefighters assisting a man at a bus stop.

Phoenix firefighters on a heat call last summer. Photo: Caitlin O'Hara/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Metro Phoenix recorded at least 600 heat deaths during last year's historically hot summer, and state and local officials say they're already working to avoid another catastrophic death toll.

Why it matters: Last year was the deadliest on record in Maricopa County, exceeding 2022's heat death toll by at least 30%, Maricopa County Public Health medical director Rebecca Sunenshine tells Axios Phoenix.

  • The county has set a new heat death record in each of at least the past six years, she adds.

State of play: "That's a really long time to hit a record every year. We're really trying to get our resources together and stop this increasing trend. It's devastating for our community," Sunenshine says.

Flashback: The longest heat wave ever recorded in the Valley kept high temperatures at or above 110 degrees from June 30 to July 30.

  • The Valley was significantly under-resourced last summer, with just one overnight cooling center and few respite options open after 5pm or on weekends.
  • Gov. Katie Hobbs declared an emergency 12 days after the heat wave ended and only then opened two state-run cooling centers.

What's happening: Hobbs also issued an executive order in August calling on state agency heads to develop a comprehensive heat plan for future summers.

  • Hobbs' spokesperson, Christian Slater, tells Axios Phoenix the Governor's Office of Resiliency is leading the state's planning efforts and will release a heat-preparedness plan on March 1 that will include a playbook for this summer's extreme-heat interventions in addition to long-term resiliency ideas.
  • The state is collecting public heat relief suggestions here.

Sunenshine says the county and state health departments are conducting an evaluation of the network of cooling centers the region has operated in past summers to determine where more are needed and how to transport people to them. The full report will be released in the coming weeks.

Between the lines: The county is also trying to address other health factors that put people at increased risk for heat illness or death, including drug use and unsheltered homelessness, by embedding social workers at cooling centers to help with finding housing and harm-reduction strategies, Sunenshine says.

  • More than half of last year's heat deaths were people experiencing homelessness and two-thirds involved substance use, she said.

Meanwhile, the city of Phoenix is preparing a heat plan as well, which will come before the city council in late February. Chief heat officer David Hondula tells Axios Phoenix that city leadership has been bullish on improving its heat response this summer, which is why planning is "months ahead of schedule compared to where we were last year."

What they're saying: "A lot of conversations are happening a lot sooner and with more players and are more substantive than I've seen in the past," Hondula says. "No one is willing to accept what we saw last summer."

What we're watching: Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego and U.S. Rep. Ruben Gallego last year asked FEMA to add extreme heat to its list of declared emergencies, a move that would unlock federal funding to protect vulnerable people during the summer.

  • So far, it hasn't happened. But Hondula tells us he's encouraged by the federal government's increased interest in heat mitigation and senses a "strong appetite" to provide more resources.

Reality check: This year could be even hotter than 2023 — which shattered temperature records by wide margins, climate scientist told Axios' Andrew Freedman.

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