After a deadly heat wave last summer, metro Phoenix is changing tactics

PHOENIX — (AP) — Terrified of being assaulted in a shelter, Pearl Marion couch surfed with family members and friends during last year's blistering summer so she didn't have to sleep outdoors.

This year, the 65-year-old woman plans to spend Phoenix's dangerously hot summer nights in a former cafeteria at the city's main library, sleeping in a chair, her head on a table. There's cool air, chilled water and security guards to keep anyone from stealing her bus pass.

“I love this place,” Marion said in the space where a half-dozen other people napped and charged their phones. New arrivals were asked if they needed help with housing, substance abuse or air conditioning repair.

It's one of two overnight spaces that opened in early May after Maricopa County saw a staggering 645 heat-related deaths last year, about 50% more than the 425 confirmed for 2022.

Arizona Gov. Katie Hobbs declared a state of emergency in 2023 after metro Phoenix experienced a 31-day streak of temperatures reaching at least 110 degrees Fahrenheit (43.3 degrees Celsius). The high in Phoenix has already hit 100 F (37.7 C) several times this year.

“People need cooling centers to be open longer and on weekends," said Dr. Rebecca Sunenshine, Maricopa County Department of Public Health medical director. “The other important piece we learned is that people need help finding cooling centers and other heat relief resources.”

RECORD DEATHS

The record deaths came as Maricopa County led the United States in growth amid a housing crisis that saw higher rents and increased evictions. As the homelessness population swelled last year to over 9,600 countywide, climate change pushed temperatures higher.

Maricopa County's first heat-related death of 2023 was recorded on April 11 when 42-year-old Crystal Gradilla was found in a tent in a desert area as the high hit 99 F (37.2 C).

By mid-summer 2023, the county medical examiner's office reported that body storage was near capacity and put 10 refrigeration trucks on standby. While the extra storage wasn’t necessary, it was clear more had to be done, especially to protect the homeless people accounting for 45% of the deaths in Arizona’s most populous county.

This year, no heat-related deaths were reported in Maricopa County for 2024 through April.

WORKING TO DO BETTER

This year, Phoenix, Maricopa County and Arizona officials are working to protect people better.

Arizona has a new heat officer — Dr. Eugene Livar, the first such position in the U.S. — to carry out the governor's extreme heat preparedness plan. Phoenix appointed the nation's first city heat officer in 2021.

At least two cooling spaces in metro Phoenix will operate overnight, and others have extended hours, including on some weekend days.

A call center with 30 bilingual community health workers is tasked with helping people find the centers, pay electricity bills and repair home cooling units.

In past years, the 170 cooling centers scattered around metro Phoenix from May to October typically closed when the business day ended at 5 p.m. as high temperatures hit.

Arizona has solar-powered mobile units fashioned from shipping containers to be moved where needed.

PROTECTING HOMELESS PEOPLE

Officials and health professionals hope fewer homeless people will die this summer after a court order forced the city to clear a downtown Phoenix encampment known as “The Zone” where up to 1,200 people massed under the blazing sun.

Hundreds went to shelters or found housing. About 150 people relocated with their tents to a nearby structured campground on a lot the city purchased.

People staying there are searched by security guards for drugs, alcohol and weapons. There are restrooms, showers and an air conditioned warehouse where up to 200 people can eat meals and escape the heat.

Hundreds more shelter beds gradually have been added in metro Phoenix in recent years. A main downtown campus hosts shelters with more than 900 beds. St. Vincent de Paul is completing a longer-term, 100-bed shelter nearby for older adults, military veterans and disabled people that will open this summer.

Maricopa County's annual count of homeless people in January showed a population slightly smaller than the previous year, with well over half now sleeping in shelters.

ELSEWHERE IN ARIZONA

While Phoenix is known for its heat, some Arizona communities get even hotter.

The state's high of 128 F (53.3 C) was recorded on June 29, 1994, in Lake Havasu City. In southwestern Yuma County, Dario Mendoza, a 26-year-old farmworker died July 20 after he collapsed in a field as the high hit 116 F (46.6 C).

Last year in Pima County, home to Arizona's second-most populous city of Tucson, there were 176 heat-related deaths and another 51 such deaths in the five additional rural counties that the medical examiner handles.

Dr. Greg Hess, Pima County's chief medical examiner, said his office can better track and categorize heat-related deaths after hiring an epidemiologist and adding a new online dashboard.

Hess said following and publicizing heat-related deaths can spark change, just as tracking fatal overdoses launched the fight against the opioid crisis.

“Investigating heat deaths has to be intentional,” he said.

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