In Extreme Heat Waves, Cities Need 'Social Resilience' to Help the Most Vulnerable

This summer's heat waves wreaked havoc on physical infrastructure, but also highlighted vulnerabilities in our social support systems.

July 30, 2021, 7:00 AM PDT

By Diana Ionescu @aworkoffiction


 on I84 in Northern Oregon…one hand on the wheel and one on the shutter, at 75 mph

Murray Foubister / On I-84 in Northern Oregon

"In an era of escalating climate change," asserts Sarah Kaplan, "extreme heat is the United States’ most fatal form of weather disaster. Already this summer, hundreds of Americans have lost their lives amid a series of record-setting heat waves that scientists say would not have happened if not for human-caused warming." In Oregon and across the Pacific Northwest, "[r]oads have buckled, and train cables have melted. Emergency departments were overwhelmed." 

In addition to physical infrastructure, officials "are realizing their social infrastructure is equally in need of repair. Long-standing inequities in housing and health care put the region’s poorest residents at greatest risk. Official warnings and government services didn’t reach those who most needed the help. Almost every victim of the heat wave died alone," Kaplan writes.

"When the heat dome scorched the state last month, Oregon did not have a heat early warning and response system, the gold standard for disaster planning. Residents in the typically temperate region didn’t know how to cope with extreme temperatures" and many didn't receive information about how to protect themselves. 

"The most effective strategy for preventing heat deaths is direct outreach, experts say. After a brutal nine-day heat wave killed 118 people in Philadelphia in 1993, the city implemented one of the nation’s most robust heat response programs." Later, "[a] study by a team of Boston researchers found that the Philadelphia system averted an average of 45 deaths per year."

According to Gabriela Goldfarb, manager of the Oregon Health Authority (OHA)'s environmental public health section, "[p]reventing deaths during climate disasters is not just about emergency response, but rather "about building 'social resilience,' addressing the isolation and inequality that make people vulnerable in the first place" by reducing the effects of urban heat islands, expanding access to health care, and funding better outreach for marginalized communities.

Wednesday, July 21, 2021 in The Washington Post

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