If 85 children drowned in Valley pools during one summer, the public would be outraged. But there were at least 85 heatrelated fatalities in Maricopa County last year — deaths just as preventable as child drownings, say weather experts and health officials.
And there was not nearly the amount of attention that is paid following the drowning of a child.
Compared to the United States overall, Arizonans are three to seven times as likely to die of the heat, the Centers for Disease Control reports. The National Weather Service states that in 2005, when an oppressive heat wave roasted the state, one-third of the nation’s heat-related deaths took place here.
Because of the danger presented by 110-degree temperatures, authorities believe it may be necessary to change residents’ beliefs about life in the desert.
“During the summer, we should be acclimating ourselves to where we live — just like the people in Minnesota acclimate themselves to the snow,” said Dr. Mark Fischione, county medical examiner.
Tony Haffer, meteorologist in charge of the Weather Service’s Phoenix office, added: “We are atypical as far as the United States goes. It’s time to take stock of what we’re doing.”
Yet these authorities admit the community seldom heeds their alerts of this annual epidemic. The reasons are varied: Typical victims of heat are on society’s margins and death statistics are hard to determine.
Most of all, hot weather, although far more dangerous, can’t compete for the public’s attention against the sight of a town turned to rubble by a tornado or the mighty whorl of a hur- ricane seen from space. Hot weather makes boring television. As county public health spokeswoman Jeanene Fowler-DeRepentigny complained, How many times can you show an egg frying on the sidewalk?
One of the worst heat waves in American history struck Chicago in July 1995. In less than a week, perhaps more than 700 people were dead. But it wasn’t until the sixth day, said the author of the definitive account of the tragedy, that news media found its gripping visual image.
“These are not spectacular disasters — unless you have 50-foot (refrigeration) trucks at the morgue storing the remains,” said Eric Klinenberg, associate professor of sociology at New York University.
Klinenberg’s 2002 book, “Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago,” showed that while the muggy, 106-degree weather was experienced all over the region, the fatalities came from pockets of the Windy City.
If there was a typical victim, it was a poor, elderly man who lived alone in a bad neighborhood. Either his residence didn’t have air conditioning, or he was too poor to run it. He didn’t have a developed communal network so there was no one to check on his welfare, and he dared not seek a cooler environment because that would require walking crimeridden streets.
To put it bluntly, he was the kind of man society finds easy to ignore.
Arizona health experts said the most common heat fatalities are homeless men — another underclass that gets little media coverage.
“Rest assured, if heat waves targeted the most affluent members of society, we’d pay a lot more attention to them,” Klinenberg said.
If the media can’t tell a story through pictures or personalities, there’s always statistics. But until recently, local authorities didn’t even have those.
As Fischione explained, determining whether a person died of heat is a complex, timeconsuming task.
It’s difficult to determine if the transient found dead in a park died from the heat, his liver cirrhosis or the methamphetamine he took. Was it the fall that killed the homeowner found on the ground under a ladder? Or the heart attack brought on by the sun?
These questions won’t be solved for weeks. And once the answers are learned, the medical examiner might find the death was due to a combination of factors. “With (heat), there’s a lot of gray zone,” Fischione said.
The Maricopa County Department of Public Health came up with its figure of 85 fatalities in 2006 by compiling data from death certificates and Fischione’s office. Sixty deaths were caused by heat, while the other 25 shared heat as a secondary factor.
Haffer said progress has been made in statistical studies, by determining a baseline number of deaths and comparing that against fatalities counted during heat waves.
Beyond identifying heat as a health issue and informing the public of the peril, authorities are working on lessening the danger. Because it’s impossible to turn down the state’s thermostat, experts believe the solution is reducing people’s exposure.
In the short term, the officials want the public to stop thinking of extremely hot days as an annoyance and start regarding them as a threat on par with blizzards and hurricanes.
The Maricopa Association of Governments will be soon making public a map of cooling centers open during times of extreme heat, but other solutions are less drastic. Meals on Wheels drivers can be taught to look for heat-related danger when making their rounds, Fowler-DeRepentigny said.
Haffer added that agencies that transport seniors should come up with contingency plans for when a bus breaks down on a hot day.
Over the long run, the experts believe there must be a reassessment of everything in Arizona that might be affected by the summer heat, from the choice of building materials to the scheduling of preseason football practices.
“I’d like to see cities start doing things with foresight rather than waiting for after a disaster,” Klinenberg said. “It’s not like we’ve cracked the weather problem. We should expect a lot more heat waves in future years.”