May 8, 2024 - News

How Arizona leaders plan to prevent record heat deaths this summer

Two women standing outside a door.

CDC director Mandy Cohen (left) and Phoenix Office of Homeless Solutions director Rachel Milne outside the cooling center at Burton Barr Library. Photo: Jessica Boehm/Axios

City, state and federal leaders are banking on early planning and additional spending to avoid the gut-wrenching heat death toll Arizona experienced last summer.

Why it matters: Nearly 650 people died of heat-related causes in Maricopa County last year — a 52% increase over 2022.

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

Driving the news: CDC director Mandy Cohen visited Phoenix's new 24/7 cooling center at Burton Barr Library on Wednesday following a discussion with local leaders.

  • "It's great to see folks … coming together as a team to think about protecting health as we go into the extreme heat time," Cohen told reporters. "I'm really impressed with what I see here in Phoenix."

Flashback: Last summer, local and state leaders were late in their response to the historic heat wave, when temperature highs were at or above 110° from June 30 to July 30.

Between the lines: A Maricopa County report found that one of the major problems last summer were limited hours at air-conditioned cooling centers. Very few facilities were open past 5pm or on weekends.

  • This year, in addition to 24/7 access to Burton Barr, Phoenix has expanded heat relief hours until 10pm at Cholla, Harmon and Yucca libraries and is using the Senior Opportunities West Senior Center as an overnight cooling center open from 6pm-5am daily.
  • These facilities opened May 1 and more than 200 people used them in the first five days, according to the city.

Zoom out: Through a partnership with the Maricopa County Department of Public Health, Glendale, Chandler, Mesa and Tempe will all have at least one heat relief site open until 7pm on weekdays and on at least one weekend day.

  • The county also partnered with 2-1-1 Arizona to staff their call center with bilingual community health workers 9am-7pm daily to help residents find cooling centers, utility assistance and AC repair services.

The intrigue: Since last summer, Arizona leaders have been asking FEMA and Congress to add extreme heat to FEMA's list of declared emergencies, a move that would unlock additional funding to protect vulnerable people during the summer.

What we're watching: Cohen said part of the purpose of her trip was to hear from on-the-ground stakeholders about what is needed to adequately protect against heat.

  • "I'm certainly going to take those messages back to Congress and talk about what I've learned here in Arizona and how that can inform how we resource this work going forward," Cohen said when asked whether heat should be considered a federal disaster.
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