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Why isn’t extreme heat considered a disaster in the U.S.?

People rested at the Oregon Convention Center cooling station in Portland, Oregon during a record-breaking heat wave in 2021. FEMA has never responded to an extreme heat emergency, but some hope that will change. (Photo by Kathryn Elsesser / AFP via Getty Images)
Kathryn Elsesser/AFP via Getty Images
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AFP
People rested at the Oregon Convention Center cooling station in Portland, Oregon during a record-breaking heat wave in 2021. FEMA has never responded to an extreme heat emergency, but some hope that will change. (Photo by Kathryn Elsesser / AFP via Getty Images)

The massive heat dome that struck the Pacific Northwest in 2021 paralyzed the region. Emergency departments were overwhelmed. Roads buckled in the heat. Hundreds of people died.

That same year, Hurricane Ida barreled into the Southeast. Buildings were flattened in Louisiana. Hundreds of thousands lost power. At least 87 people in the U.S. died.

Both were deadly and traumatizing. But FEMA distributed billions of dollars and months of post-disaster support to states and families battered by Ida. Victims of the heat dome, on the other hand, received no federal support.

That difference stems from a longstanding convention: FEMA responds to natural disasters like hurricanes or earthquakes — disasters with major and obvious damage to physical infrastructure. But the agency has not historically responded to extreme heat. Now, a coalition of environmental nonprofits, labor unions, health professionals and environmental justice groups is asking the agency to change that. In a petition filed Monday, the coalition asks FEMA to add extreme heat and wildfire smoke to the list of disasters to which they respond.

“Hurricanes are terrible. Earthquakes are terrible. But actually, heat is the number one killer now of the climate emergency of any weather-related event,” says Jean Su, director of the Energy Justice Program at the Center for Biological Diversity and a leader of the new petition.

Climate change has intensified the risks of heat and wildfire smoke turning what was once a manageable seasonal problem increasingly dangerous and deadly, Su says. Last year, at least 2,200 people died from heat, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, though experts say that number is almost certainly a vast underestimate.

“If we're actually looking at where FEMA can actually make the biggest difference, it would be targeting and focusing major disaster funding on actual health impacts and lives of extreme heat and wildfire smoke,” says Su.

FEMA’s guiding law, the Stafford Act, includes a list of 16 natural disasters that fall under the agency’s disaster-response purview. But the language of the act is designed to be flexible and inclusive of disasters not explicitly listed, says Samantha Montano, an emergency management expert at the Massachusetts Maritime Academy. After some initial debate, FEMA was authorized to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, for example, despite the fact that “pandemic” was not a listed disaster category.

“Everybody in emergency management was like, well, surely it was intended to cover that,” says Montano.

Heat is a different kind of disaster

But historically, the agency has not responded to extreme heat. That is partly because of procedural practice, says Juanita Constible, an environmental policy expert at the Natural Resources Defense Council. A state governor or tribal leader has to request a disaster declaration from the U.S. president before FEMA can get involved. Few governors have made that request for a heat emergency. Most recently, Illinois asked after a deadly 1995 heat wave tested Chicago’s emergency response systems. California asked for help with heat-induced wildfires in 2022.

So far, FEMA has denied those requests because states did not demonstrate that their local resources were fully overwhelmed — a threshold the agency uses to decide whether to intervene. But that doesn’t preclude FEMA from making a different decision in the future if governors ask, says Montano.

“It may not specifically say heat waves in [the Stafford Act], but surely that is what we interpret as being a disaster,” she says. “There's a lot of bad things that can happen in communities. And if we have a way to use FEMA to help those communities, then I think we should do that.”

Theoretically, FEMA could respond to a heat emergency without a change in language in the Stafford Act, according to FEMA spokesperson Daniel Llargues. “There’s nothing specific in the Stafford Act that precludes a declaration for extreme heat,” he wrote in an email. "If a circumstance did occur where an extreme heat incident exceeded state and local capacity, an emergency or major disaster declaration request submission could be considered."

Defining a heat disaster

The thresholds for a heat wave to morph into a named disaster, though, could be high. Hot weather alone isn’t enough, says Craig Fugate, a former FEMA administrator. The event would have to cross into the realm of truly disastrous and unexpected — a reality happening more frequently because of climate change, he says. But a stretch of days with a heat index of 100 degrees Fahrenheit in his city of Gainesville, Florida, wouldn’t necessarily be a disaster. That same heat could be more impactful — even disastrous — in a place like Wisconsin, where people and infrastructure are not adapted to such conditions.

“Is this event so extreme that the community and the people living there would suffer grievous losses, or require resources that neither the local governments or the state have?” Fugate asks.

Estimating those losses, though, is an ongoing challenge. States historically add up factors like physical infrastructure damages and costs to health facilities and other emergency systems to demonstrate that a disaster outstrips their capacity to handle it. But in a heat disaster, the impacts are less obvious and more health-focused, says Constible.

“After a hurricane, after a big storm, there's devastation galore. There's power lines down and buildings destroyed and entire businesses just blown away,” she says. But with heat, “most of the people that are hurt are essentially invisible to decision makers. They die alone in their homes. They are unhoused and are dying on the street.” Often, those heat-related deaths go uncounted or severely undercounted, or are tallied up so slowly the true costs of a disaster aren’t understood until many months later.

What FEMA could do in a heat disaster

A presidential disaster declaration unlocks FEMA support during a disaster, as well as money that can help communities respond during the event and in the long recovery period afterward.

Fugate says the agency could help with the emergency response to extreme heat if a state’s governor thought they needed more help than the state’s own resources could handle. FEMA could provide cooling facilities, water stations, and generators to air condition respite spaces, or it could send extra medical help if hospitals are overwhelmed with patients.

FEMA also provides resources to people directly, like funeral assistance for loved ones lost in a disaster or medical assistance to defray the costs of seeking emergency care. Adelita Cantu, a public health nurse at the University of Texas Health, San Antonio, and a member of petition co-signer Alliance of Nurses for Healthy Environments, works with socially vulnerable and low-income communities.

Her patients are “not turning on their air conditioning because they're afraid of the electricity bill,” she says. “That needs to be now one of those safety issues that we all need to think about.” FEMA funding to help defray electricity costs during extreme heat disasters could save lives, she says.

The agency also funds recovery and resilience efforts that help prevent similar disasters from happening again. That could include projects like building long-term resilience centers with backup power to help people keep cool when blackouts roll through an area. FEMA could also address urban heat island impacts or outfit homes of particularly vulnerable community members with cooling devices. But FEMA is not the only government agency capable, or responsible for, funding long-term resilience efforts, Fugate stresses.

“Yes, this is getting worse. Yes, it is tied to the climate,” Fugate says. But the question is, “is this [heat event] something that is so out of character that it requires an emergency declaration? Or are there other federal programs that address those concerns?” He emphasizes that addressing chronic heat risks is the responsibility of states and local governments.

The petitioners asking FEMA to include extreme heat and wildfire smoke in their purview say the risks are more often crossing the threshold from chronic to acute. “The 20,000 foot issue right now is that our Federal Emergency Management Agency is ill-equipped to actually deal with the existential emergency of our time, which is the climate,” Su says. “We are no longer in property damage mode from earthquakes and floods. But we are now at a new elevated level where the emergency looks like actual deaths.”

Copyright 2024 NPR

Alejandra Borunda
[Copyright 2024 Production Test Station]