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caption: The sun inches behind a building in Seattle's South Lake Union neighborhood as the city experiences a record-breaking heat wave June 26, 2021.
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The sun inches behind a building in Seattle's South Lake Union neighborhood as the city experiences a record-breaking heat wave June 26, 2021.
Credit: Dyer Oxley / KUOW

To prevent deaths during Washington's next heat wave, we need a heat action plan

Washington's death toll from the recent heat wave is now at 112 people, and that number is expected to grow. The three days of triple-digit temperatures at the end of June add up to the deadliest weather-related disaster in Washington state's history.

The question now is — how do we keep people alive during the next extreme heat event?

For some answers, we spoke with Kristie Ebi, a professor at the University of Washington's Center for Health and the Global Environment. She told KUOW’s Kim Malcolm that all the deaths were preventable.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

Professor Ebi: As I watched this event unfold, it was just a classic example of what's happened in other regions that have lots of resources, but are unprepared for extreme heatwave. This has happened before in Europe in 2003. It's happened in any number of countries faced with these very extreme events.

I was very worried about our most vulnerable citizens, and hoping that they would be able the information and the services they need, so that they would be protected.

Kim Malcolm: How prepared were we, in your opinion?

Cities, counties, and states that are well prepared have heat action plans. These heat action plans have two basic components. One is a heat wave early warning and response system. The other component is long-term planning on how we are going to face a much warmer future. We don't have a heat action plan. I know the city worked hard to stand up services on very short notice, and it's challenging to do so.

The City of Seattle does have a General Emergency Operations plan, but as you say, there is no specific plan for heat. Is that a gap that needs addressing?

Yes.

And what would you put in a heat action plan?

You of course absolutely need the forecasts, and the skill in forecasting is increasing. We're getting forecasts more in advance, which is really helpful. You then need to figure out where the most vulnerable live. This includes not just adults over the age of 65, people with underlying chronic medical conditions, but also regions. For example, regions that have been redlined, that tend to be hotter than the rest of the city because they have fewer trees.

Then you need to figure out how you're going to reach out to these people. You have to have a communications plan. You have to coordinate a really wide range of services; everything from public health to ambulance services, the fire department, people who reach out to elderly care facilities, people who reach out and take care of the homeless. I could go on. The list is quite long. It’s an all of government kind of issue.

You need then to make sure that you have those services. You think through all those operational details for running, for example, a cooling center. What hours is it open? Is it close to locations of where the most vulnerable live? You understand how the most vulnerable are going to get there. Are they going to be open all night if the temperatures are really high overnight?

There are lots of operational details in each of these steps. So it does require a relatively high level of governance, to have management of these that you can have all of the services come together. You want to include not the city and county services alone. You also want to include representatives of those who are most vulnerable, and who they trust most to hear from.

So there's the short term response when you have a heat wave and you know it's going to last for a few days. What about long-term solutions? What should we be thinking about?

What do we want our cities to look like? There are areas where, frankly, planting more trees would be a benefit in the short and the long-term; would help cool the neighborhoods. With all the building construction going on, thinking about our rules, our regulations. Are we going to have white roofs or green roofs? Are we going to think differently about the building materials that we use? Are we going to make sure that there's ventilation, so people could perhaps use fans and not have to use air conditioning if they don't have cross ventilation?

It's just like everything else that our cities plan for. Planning for earthquakes, there's been a real change over time in the building requirements for protecting buildings from an earthquake. We need to do the same as we face a much hotter future.

Air conditioning or cooling systems in homes and apartments, should that be required?

In most cases, no. There's lots of ways that people can cool down their core body temperature, when it's hot. You can sit in front of a fan and put some water on you so the water evaporates. That can really cool down your core body temperature, just like someone going out for heavy exercise and pouring water over their head. It works.

And we need to remember that many of the people at higher risk, our outdoor workers, farm workers and others, who are outdoors during these very extreme temperatures. We need to recall that not everybody can afford air conditioning. And we have to be able to protect everybody, so we want to communicate there's other ways you can keep yourself cool, other than air conditioning, while acknowledging that some people at very high risk might need to have it.

Beyond the short term emergency response and the long-term planning that officials would be looking at in this scenario, people living in neighborhoods also have a role to play here, right?

It's very important. There's so much each of us can do as individuals, not only to protect ourselves, our family, our friends and our colleagues, but to check in on people who are more vulnerable. If you know someone who's an older adult, doesn't have access to air conditioning, check in on them, make sure that they're doing okay.

And there are others that one can reach out to make sure that they have what they need. They're drinking enough water. They've got a fan. They're finding ways to keep themselves cool during the day and during the night, so that they can be protected even during this hot weather.

I understand our state climatologist was looking at some longer-term models. He doesn't see another extreme heat wave event like the one we experienced popping up again this summer. But when the next one happens, say it happens soon, what would be your greatest fear in that event?

My greatest fear is that we don't use this unfortunate event to put together the heat action plan that our region needs to protect people in the future; that we go into the next heat wave and again we have people die. As you noted, there's been more than 100 deaths, and those numbers are going to increase.

We don't want to see this happen again, so I really hope that people hearing this will understand there's lots of actions we all can take to protect ourselves in the next event.

Listen to the interview by clicking the play button above.