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New measures are being taken to reduce heat-related deaths in Phoenix

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Extreme heat is making life difficult across much of the southern and southwestern U.S right now. The National Weather Service is predicting what it calls prolonged dangerous heat in the area where California, Nevada and Arizona meet. Well, that includes Phoenix, which is where we find Katherine Davis-Young. She's covering the heat wave for member station KJZZ. Hey there.

KATHERINE DAVIS-YOUNG, BYLINE: Hi.

KELLY: So it's not exactly breaking news that it's hot in Phoenix in July. So talk us through what makes this particular heat wave unusual.

DAVIS-YOUNG: Right. Every summer, we get some intensely hot days with temperatures above 110 or 115. But this has just been a particularly long stretch. The record was 18 days in a row at or above 110 back in 1974. We've now had 10 days in a row with those temperatures, and it's not cooling down anytime soon. So we could see our longest stretch ever this summer. Usually by this time of year in Phoenix, we'll get some monsoon moisture that cools things down a little. And so far, those storm systems just haven't materialized.

KELLY: Well, and that can all become very dangerous. What's the public health toll of a heat wave like this?

DAVIS-YOUNG: Unfortunately, heat-related deaths in Maricopa County, which includes Phoenix, have been skyrocketing in recent years. We had a record 425 heat deaths last summer. That number quadrupled in just a decade. Part of the problem is, as our summers have gotten hotter, our homeless population has also dramatically increased. And unsheltered people face the biggest risks in these temperatures.

KELLY: So what are officials there doing to try to help those people?

DAVIS-YOUNG: The state is spending a record amount of money this year to try to address homelessness, but that's obviously not going to happen overnight. And the hot weather is here now. So heat relief efforts have become a major focus for the county and city governments in the last couple of years. Phoenix in 2021 established the country's first local level heat response office. That office is working on projects like reflective pavement that can cool the streets, and simpler solutions, like just planting more trees to create shade across the city. David Hondula is director of that office.

DAVID HONDULA: We've already seen urban forestry investments supercharged in the city. And with some of the opportunities available through the Inflation Reduction Act, we're very, very hopeful that even more is on the way.

DAVIS-YOUNG: So Maricopa County is also spending more on heat this summer than it ever has before. They're putting nearly $14 million toward homeless outreach services and temporary cooling centers where people can get inside and get hydrated. And the county has even launched a pilot program to repair or replace hundreds of air conditioning units for low-income homeowners.

KELLY: Say more about that piece of this puzzle, because it seems like so much of trying to keep people safe is keeping air conditioners running. Are electrical providers able to keep up with the demand?

DAVIS-YOUNG: I have spoken with SRP, which is one of Phoenix's major utilities. They tell me right around this time last year, they hit an all-time record for power use. This summer - and they expect they'll break that record again. So they've invested in more battery storage that can serve as backup power. And this year, they've built a pair of new natural gas turbines that can get online in only about 10 minutes when demand is peaking. That compares to some of their more traditional technology that may take 12 hours to get running. So they say the biggest concern in terms of power outages would be storm activity. But like I mentioned before, part of the reason it is so hot is that we haven't had our usual summer storms so far this year.

KELLY: And is there any rain in the forecast?

DAVIS-YOUNG: We'll be crossing our fingers, but at least for this week, the forecast still looks very hot.

KELLY: Very hot. Reporter Katherine Davis-Young of KJZZ in Phoenix. Thank you.

DAVIS-YOUNG: Thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Katherine Davis-Young