Fighting the heat: Arizona officials petitioning for federal aid in extreme heat situations

(Video by Andrew Lind/Cronkite News)

PHOENIX – All Phoenicians are familiar with heat, though resources to mitigate the health risks presented by extreme heat are not nearly as consistent from resident to resident.

In 2022, 425 heat-associated deaths were reported in Maricopa County, a 25% increase from the previous year. To curb the rise in deaths, Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego has made efforts to provide assistance and disaster relief for residents susceptible to heat exhaustion and other heat-related harms, with the creation of the Office of Heat Response and Mitigation within the city’s government.

“I made it my mission to adapt to this trend to innovate, to try to find solutions so that we are not falling behind on heat resilience,” Gallego said Friday at a news conference to discuss heat reliefs efforts.

Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego and Rep. Ruben Gallego address media questions on the proposed Excess Urban Heat Mitigation Act outside Phoenix City Hall. (Photo by Josh Bootzin/Cronkite News)

Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego and Rep. Ruben Gallego address media questions on the proposed Excess Urban Heat Mitigation Act outside Phoenix City Hall. (Photo by Josh Bootzin/Cronkite News)

“We’re the first city with a permanent office of government that is dedicated to fighting the heat and adapting to it anywhere in the United States. The office works side by side with the entire city government to address … our city streets, our fire response programs, environmental problems and so much more,” she said.

Some of Gallego’s efforts have already been put into place. Just this week, the city reached 100 miles of cool pavement coating – a water-based product applied over asphalt that has been found to reduce surface temperatures up to 12 degrees. The Cool Pavement Program started in 2020.

In addition to Gallego’s efforts in Phoenix, U.S. Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Phoenix, is pushing for federal heat-resistance legislation in Washington. The proposed Extreme Heat Emergency Act urges the Federal Emergency Management Agency to consider adding extreme heat to the existing list of 16 types of declared major disasters.

“When a hurricane hits in Florida or a tornado touches down in Oklahoma, the federal government steps in and provides assistance,” Rep. Gallego said. “The same should be true when extreme heat waves strike.

“My bill allows cities like Phoenix to do more in building cool pavements, add more trees, install additional bus stop covers and deploy more cooling centers around the city,” he said. “With $30 million available in funding, my bill would make a difference in keeping Phoenicians cool.”

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According to the National Safety Council, heat was the second-highest death-causing weather event in 2021, and heat-related deaths are only continuing to climb. The National Weather Service reported that over the last 125 years, Phoenix experienced an average of 12 days per year that exceeded 110 degrees Fahrenheit, but that average has climbed to 21 days over the last three decades.

Gallego’s bill is not set at a specific temperature, so any of the 50 states could potentially ask for federal aid when heat becomes extreme relative to the state’s normal temperature averages. In other words, northern states would not have to experience temperatures that would be extreme for Phoenix in order to qualify for federal aid.

Currently, local governments are forced to take from their general funds in order to offer relief to residents during extreme heat situations. Under the bill, cities would work with FEMA to create better and faster aid at a lesser cost to local governments.

Rep. Gallego said he hopes to have the bill approved by next year.

Josh Bootzin jaw-sh boot-zin (he/him)
Sports Reporter, Phoenix

Josh Bootzin expects to graduate in December 2023 with a master’s degree in sports journalism. He receive bachelor’s of arts degrees in statistics and creative writing from the University of Pittsburgh in 2021 and hopes to build a career in data journalism around proficiencies in statistics, print journalism and a love for sports.

Andrew Lind an-droo lind (he/him/his)
Sports Broadcast Producer, Phoenix

Andrew Lind expects to graduate in August 2023 with a master’s in sports journalism. Lind graduated from the University of Kansas in May 2022 with a bachelor’s degree in journalism.