Imagine a killer heat wave in Arizona. Now add to that a power outage across the West. This nightmare scenario was presented Wednesday during a meeting of experts from the fields of meteorology, public health, the environment and urban planning.
The conference was billed as the first to bring together authorities from these fields to discuss the perils of extreme heat.
“The thing I worry about most within the next 10 years is what I call a ‘disaster within a disaster,’ ” said Michael A. McGeehin, director of the Environmental Hazards and Health Effects Division at the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “If you have 116 degrees for three days in a row here and everybody is using air conditioning, and suddenly they’re not for 48 hours, that’s a disaster within a disaster.”
How will people cool off? If they flee the Valley, where will they go and how will they get there?
Many of these questions have yet to be answered, explaining why the assembled experts decided to attend the conference, which runs through Friday at Tempe’s Fiesta Resort Conference Center.
“Because heat has been taken for granted over the years, we don’t have any data to verify whether we’re doing well or whether the systems we have in place are in need of improvement,” said Bob England, director of the Maricopa County Department of Public Health.
The urgency to plan for such serious health threats usually takes hold after a natural disaster kills scores of residents, McGeehin said.
“You have to learn the hard way,” he said.
The Valley’s eye-opening brush with mass casualties came during the summer of 2005.
According to England’s data, the county suffered heat deaths 82 percent above the average number of the previous summers.
The conference agenda includes an item called “Vulnerability Mapping,” in which heat-related emergency calls are plotted against geographic layouts of communities.
“What we want to know is where these are happening and if we can make investments to mitigate it,” said Jay Golden, an Arizona State University expert on urban-area climatology.
England said there were no obvious pockets of fatalities in the Valley two years ago. In fact, the deaths were very spread out due to the transient nature of the homeless — a population that suffered disproportionately.
Vulnerability mapping also can be used to determine if there are connections between extreme heat and violent crimes, Golden said.
On that subject, Valley experts will be working with their counterparts from the Chicago area.
Also attending are representatives of Mesa, Minneapolis, New York, Philadelphia and Seattle.
“Cities are taking the lead on climate change, not the federal government,” Golden said.
“There’s a lot of talk about global climate change, but the bigger signal is urban climate change.”
HISTORIC HEAT WAVES
Europe (2003): 35,000 deaths, 14,802 in France
Chicago (1995): 700 deaths
Philadelphia (1993): 120 deaths
St. Louis (1980): 113 deaths
SOURCE: Maricopa County Department of Public Health