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Can Seattle take the heat? Officials say area is better prepared this summer

caption: Tony Nguyen takes a break from skateboarding in 100-degree heat on Sunday, June 27, 2021, at Cal Anderson Park on Capitol Hill.
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Tony Nguyen takes a break from skateboarding in 100-degree heat on Sunday, June 27, 2021, at Cal Anderson Park on Capitol Hill.
Genna Martin for KUOW

Emergency officials say the Seattle area is better prepared for extreme temperatures this summer than it was before the Northwest’s deadly heat dome of 2021.

But making the region thoroughly heat-proof could take many years, and climate activists say government is not moving with the urgency that a climate crisis deserves.

Two summers ago, a record-shattering heatwave killed an estimated 1,200 people in British Columbia, Oregon, and Washington, including more than 400 in Washington.

Since then, Seattle-area officials say they’ve strengthened systems designed to keep vulnerable people from succumbing to the extreme conditions that are expected to arrive more frequently as pollution overheats the global climate.

Hospitals have improved their capacity to work together to prevent emergency rooms from being overwhelmed by a surge of heatstroke victims.

The Washington Department of Labor and Industries has put emergency rules in place to protect outdoor workers during heatwaves, though some farmworkers say the rules are not being enforced.

Nationally, farmworkers die of heat stress at 35 times the rate of other workers, while Latinos are three times more likely to die from heat at work than non-Latinos, according to the consumer advocacy group Public Citizen.

Officials in King County have beefed up early-warning systems that kick in when deadly temperatures are in the forecast.

“One of our major jobs is to make those notifications and make sure people understand that they have a place to go to get cool,” said Brendan McCluskey, director of emergency management for King County.

King County now has a detailed “playbook” that the county’s 39 cities can follow once the National Weather Service issues an extreme heat watch or warning.

Seattle officials say they’ve added more appealing places for people to cool off.

Many “cooling centers” opened during triple-digit temperatures in June 2021 saw little use.

“Just having a big open space with an air conditioning is not appealing to people,” said Curry Mayer, Seattle’s director of emergency management. “If I'm a mom and I have little kids, I don't want to just go sit in a room with nothing to do, but it's air conditioned.”

Even temporary exposure to cool temperatures during a heatwave can help lower core body temperatures and prevent heat stress or heatstroke.

Mayer said the city now aims to provide cooling primarily in places where people already go, such as senior centers, schools, or common rooms in their own apartment buildings.

“So people could just literally go downstairs, rather than having to travel someplace else,” she said.

Mayer said the city has distributed portable air conditioners to such facilities but declined to say how many.

In September, Seattle provided funding to upgrade 13 of the city’s 26 community centers with air conditioning, solar power, and backup power so they can function as refuges during heatwaves and smoke events. Those overhauls are scheduled over the next five years.

Residences with air conditioning remain the exception, not the rule, in historically temperate Western Washington, especially for lower-income households.

“Only 34% of households that earn $50,000 or less in King, Pierce, and Snohomish counties have AC in their home, and just 29% of rented houses in these three counties have them installed,” according to a new report from the University of Washington’s Climate Impacts Group.

Some measures, such as opening more cooling centers or spray parks, can have immediate benefits, while other potentially life-saving responses, like increasing tree canopy in the hottest neighborhoods, could take years if not decades.

City and county officials say their strategies aim to help people most vulnerable to overheating, including the very young, the very old, people with chronic health problems, and those who work or live outdoors.

Climate activist Ben Jones with 350 Seattle criticized the slowness of Seattle’s responses — with many policies aiming to end heat-trapping pollution by 2050, not 2030 as required under the city’s Green New Deal law.

He also said the region’s failure to provide adequate housing for low-income and homeless people means heatwaves will continue to take a heavy toll.

“With more extreme weather, we can’t have people living outside,” Jones said. “Access to air conditioning is life or death.”

University of Washington researchers called for a comprehensive statewide strategy to reduce the human toll of future heatwaves, with measures such as:

• Providing air conditioners to low-income households and protecting tenants’ rights to install air-conditioning window units

• Establishing volunteer networks to check on high-risk neighbors

• Providing transportation to cooling centers

• Increasing vegetated roofs, tree cover, and shade structures

• Increasing enforcement of laws protecting outdoor workers, especially in the earliest and most dangerous days of extreme heat

Heatwaves kill more people in the United States than any other form of extreme weather.

“Normally, it takes about 10 days for a person to adjust to heat,” said physician and Boise State University public health professor Uwe Reischl. “If they're exposed to heat suddenly, it's more difficult.”

A peer-reviewed "rapid attribution" study published in December found that the Northwest's off-the-charts heatwave of 2021 was 'virtually impossible' without human-caused climate change.

Climate scientists say ending pollution from fossil fuels is the most important step to keep heatwaves from becoming more frequent and more intense.

On Thursday, Oregon’s most populous county, Multnomah County, sued 17 oil and gas companies for $52 billion in damages and future costs of heatwaves that their emissions helped worsen.

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