Grim warnings issued as oppressive US heat wave spreads

Jul 20, 2022, 10:21 AM
As an oppressive heat wave spreads across the United States — and shows no sign of slowing until ...
As an oppressive heat wave spreads across the United States — and shows no sign of slowing until at least through the weekend — local leaders across the country are urging extreme caution. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images via CNN)
(Spencer Platt/Getty Images via CNN)

(CNN) — A dangerous heat wave that has wilted the south-central U.S. is spreading Wednesday, with nearly 110 million people under heat alerts in 28 states from California to New England — and many areas expecting high temperatures in the 90s or triple digits.

That has leaders around the country warning people: Get to a cool place and check on each other.

The most intense heat is expected to be over the Southwest and south-central U.S., with highs again expected to top 100 degrees in much of Texas, where sweltering conditions have spurred record levels of power consumption.

But parts of the Ohio Valley and the Northeast — including New York City, Philadelphia and Boston — also are under heat alerts Wednesday and are expected to stay hot at least through the weekend.

And in much of the Northeast, although Wednesday’s high temperatures will range from the 80s to the mid-90s, humidity will push the heat index — what the air will feel like — into the upper 90s and low 100s, that Weather Prediction Center said.

In New York, residents are urged to stay indoors in the coming days to avoid the “dangerous conditions that can lead to heat stress and illness,” said Jackie Bray, commissioner of the state’s homeland security and emergency services division.

In Boston, Mayor Michelle Wu declared a heat emergency through Thursday and announced at least 12 community centers will open to anyone who wants to cool off. More than 50 splash pads will be available at city parks and playgrounds, she said.

“It is clear that a changing climate is a risk to our health,” the mayor said. “I urge everyone to stay cool and safe, and check on your neighbors during the week.”

Connecticut’s governor activated the state’s extreme hot weather protocol through Sunday that will help, in part, ensure the availability of cooling centers.

Philadelphia declared a “heat caution” from noon Tuesday to Thursday evening, urging people to avoid being outside from noon to 5 p.m. and use air conditioners or fans, the city said in an email to CNN.

The heat wave comes as President Joe Biden was expected to announce Wednesday new funding for communities facing extreme heat and steps to boost the offshore wind industry during a speech at a defunct Massachusetts coal power plant.

And it’s not just the U.S.: The climate crisis has been pushing weather to the extreme all over the world, with a searing heat wave also sweeping through Europe this week.

How to stay cool without air conditioning

Record temperatures set Tuesday in Oklahoma and Texas

The south-central U.S. already has seen brutal temperatures for the past few days. In Texas and Oklahoma on Tuesday, a number of record high temperatures were set for that particular day. That includes Wichita Falls, Texas, where Tuesday’s high of 115 degrees broke a record of 112 set in 2018.

The heat is giving air conditioning units a workout. The Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which operates about 90% of Texas’ power grid, set an one-day record for power demand Tuesday, and another record is expected Wednesday, an ERCOT spokesperson said.

In Oklahoma, where temperatures topped 100 degrees in much of the state Tuesday, the extreme heat and drought has led to wildfires and rural water system outages, Oklahoma Department of Emergency Management and Homeland Security spokesperson Keli Cain told CNN.

Little Rock, Arkansas, recorded its 10th day this year with temperatures of at least 100 degrees on Tuesday, according to the National Weather Service. The service warned Wednesday will be “another brutal day,” with both hot temperatures and dangerous heat indices.

In Texas, some prisons are without air conditioning

A number of incarceration facilities across Texas do not have working air conditioning, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice said.

“There are 100 (Texas Department of Criminal Justice) units, 31 have full AC, 55 have partial AC, and 14 have no AC. We take numerous precautions to lessen the effects of hot temperatures for those incarcerated within our facilities,” Amanda Hernandez, a spokesperson for the department, told CNN In an email.

The state has had at least four heat waves this season, a hot streak that started impacting residents even before summer’s official start. And with the ongoing sweltering heat, some people in the criminal justice system have fallen ill from heat-related injuries.

“In 2022, there have been seven inmates who required medical care beyond first aid for heat related injuries, ” Hernandez said. “None were fatal.”

Chief heat officers helping cities cope

As longer stretches of excessive heat have become more common, some local governments have hired chief heat officers to help navigate the response.

Jane Gilbert, chief heat officer for Miami-Dade County, told CNN’s Don Lemon Tuesday that Miami now has nearly double the days with a heat index over 90 degrees than it did in the 1970s.

“And we’re getting many, many more days with the heat index, the more extreme levels of 103, 105,” Gilbert said. “That is not only concerning to people’s health but their pocketbooks. Our outdoor workers can’t work as long, they lose work time. People can’t afford this AC, the higher electricity cost. It’s both a health and an economic crisis.”

Those without air conditioning can keep cool by leaving windows open, using fans and putting cold towels on their necks, Gilbert said. She also suggested people check on their friends, family and neighbors.

“Elderly, young children, people with certain health conditions can be more vulnerable to the heat. It’s really important to check on those people and make sure that they have the ability to take care of themselves,” Gilbert said.

David Hondula, director of the Office of Heat Response and Mitigation for Phoenix, echoed that sentiment, saying, “The heat can affect everyone, we’re all at risk.”

Hondula suggested particularly keeping an eye on community members who may not have access to regular shelter.

“If we see somebody sleeping, for example, out in the sun on a hot surface, don’t assume they’re just taking a nap. There could be a real medical emergency there and a call to 911 might be necessary,” he said.

Why heat and humidity are especially dangerous

Heat is one of the top weather-related causes of death in the U.S., according to Kimberly McMahon, public weather services program manager with the National Weather Service.

“Heat affects everyone by limiting the body’s ability to cool down,” McMahon said.

High humidity levels only further limit that ability.

“Sweating removes 22% of excess body heat by redirecting heat towards the evaporation of the sweat,” CNN meteorologist Robert Shackelford said. “High humidity means that there is more moisture in the air. Since there is significantly more moisture in the air, it causes sweat to evaporate slower, which leads to a slowing down of your body’s natural ability to cool. That is why heat indices on a day with high humidity can feel significantly hotter than the actual temperature of the air.”

Too much heat and humidity can lead to heat-related illnesses including heat cramps, a heat rash, heat exhaustion “and — the worst of all — heat stroke which can result in death,” McMahon said.

There are an average of 702 heat-related deaths and 9,235 hospitalizations each year across the country, according to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And the threat is only increasing, according to the agency.

“Extreme heat is a real threat and needs to be taken seriously,” McMahon added.

Those who are more vulnerable to the high temperatures include outdoor workers, pregnant women, people with heart or lung conditions, young children, older adults and athletes, according to the CDC.

The-CNN-Wire™ & © 2022 Cable News Network, Inc., a WarnerMedia Company. All rights reserved.

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Grim warnings issued as oppressive US heat wave spreads