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Heat kills, but it doesn't have to: How the government can help

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Extreme heat killed more people in the U.S. last year than hurricanes, floods, lightning or tornadoes. It's by far the deadliest weather-related disaster in this country, yet the human impact is harder to see - no toppled trees or flooded homes. And the federal government treats heat waves differently than other types of disasters.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

KATHY BAUGHMAN MCLEOD: Well, if you think about it, heat has no owner. There is no heat agency. It's everybody and nobody's problem, and I think that needs to change.

SUMMERS: That is Kathy Baughman McLeod talking to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED back in 2021. She's a director of the Arsht-Rock Resilience Center, a nonprofit focused on climate adaptation.

Welcome back.

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BAUGHMAN MCLEOD: Thanks for having me.

SUMMERS: So Kathy, just yesterday on this show, I spoke with the mayor of Phoenix, and she was telling me that she and other officials in the state of Arizona are working to get heat designated as an eligible federal disaster. So I want to ask you - how much has changed since we talked to you two years ago in how the federal government responds to these events?

BAUGHMAN MCLEOD: Well, lots of good things and also an acceleration of the effects of heat that exceeds our own perception of how hot it is. NOAA has just put out a $5 million grant opportunity, and FEMA has the, you know, Building Resilient Infrastructure Communities. That is a $2.3 billion offering for local and state governments - a big multi-agency task force across the federal government. But at the same time, we see deaths and illness. And the increase of the risk and the impact is happening so quickly our own perception of it can't keep up. And so there's some good news and some bad news.

SUMMERS: I understand that you are on FEMA's National Advisory Council. What can you tell us about how FEMA is moving to respond to extreme heat, much as we see the agency respond to other disasters?

BAUGHMAN MCLEOD: I can't really respond as a member of the National Advisory Council, and so I won't make any comments on that. But I will say that the understanding of the need to get in front of these disasters for communities - places like Miami-Dade County, where they are implementing worker protection rules at the local level, trying to pass protections for people who are least responsible for the heat but the most susceptible to it - that has become top of the agenda of local and state leaders across the country.

SUMMERS: Heat deaths are really hard to count because only some of those have heat illness specified on a death certificate. So in your view, do we have an accurate picture today of how deadly these heat waves really are?

BAUGHMAN MCLEOD: We do not - absolutely do not. And the underlying conditions that lots of Americans and people around the world have are exacerbated by heat. And so when you go into the hospital, there is not a box to check on the intake that says, is this a heat-related injury? And if that's happening, that's great, but it is few and far between.

SUMMERS: It sounds like you're saying that some of the solutions here could be pretty easy, but I'm curious what the effect would be. What would more accurate counting of health issues or deaths that occur due to heat do when it comes to improving the government response?

BAUGHMAN MCLEOD: I think it would create more urgency to have the sense - you know, in the summer of 2021, 1,200 people died in two days across the Pacific Northwest and British Columbia. I mean, that's a mass casualty event. And, again, you fly over, and there's nothing to see, you know, from one day, you know, to the third day. And we are still having the same conversation. So if we had those huge numbers that showed us how many people really are getting sick, I think we'd have the private sector getting involved, understanding how much it was costing them, the health care companies, governments enacting lots of evidence-based interventions that we know work and save money. And so some very strong cost-saving and health protection measures could come as a result of having real data that tells us how many people are dying from heat.

SUMMERS: Two years ago, when you spoke to my colleagues on the show, you told us that heat waves really - they need to be named in order to be taken as seriously as other extreme weather events. Has there been any progress on that front since then?

BAUGHMAN MCLEOD: Yes, there has been progress. You know, we're also equal, or even more so, advocates for health-based categorization systems. So that when you have - just the way we do hurricanes - they're a Category 1 or a 2 or a 3. We think and are showing that a health-based categorization system is a great way to convey how deadly the risk is at any certain time in a given community.

On top of that, we attach a naming convention with our partners in Seville, Spain. And we have - in a international consortium, we've named the third official heat wave this summer. And so we named Zoe last summer and have conducted an early evaluation to see - did people remember the name Zoe? And if so, did you change your behavior? Did you protect yourself and take some actions? Did you call your family? And further, did you trust the government's advice on what to do? And the very early returns from the evaluation show that the answer is yes - that people who remembered Zoe's name did act and do more, share with their friends and family and trusted the government's advice.

SUMMERS: What immediate things should governments be doing now, as much of the country is grappling with extreme heat, to protect people who live in their cities and towns?

BAUGHMAN MCLEOD: The biggest thing that we need is the awareness built to the level of this risk. The risk is bigger than we think it is, and so governments need to focus on public awareness. It's not rocket science, but it's got to be really focused communication about what the risk is and what people should be doing and how to recognize signs and then how to protect yourself. And nobody has to die from heat. This is one of the most positive aspects of climate action. No one has to die from this. With the right information and a place to go, nobody has to die.

SUMMERS: That was Kathy Baughman McLeod. She's the director of the Arsht-Rock Resilience Center and also serves on FEMA's National Advisory Council. Kathy, thank you so much.

BAUGHMAN MCLEOD: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Jonaki Mehta is a producer for All Things Considered. Before ATC, she worked at Neon Hum Media where she produced a documentary series and talk show. Prior to that, Mehta was a producer at Member station KPCC and director/associate producer at Marketplace Morning Report, where she helped shape the morning's business news.
Christopher Intagliata is an editor at All Things Considered, where he writes news and edits interviews with politicians, musicians, restaurant owners, scientists and many of the other voices heard on the air.
Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.