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killer heat

America’s Deadly Heat Isn’t (Officially) a Major Disaster

Why doesn’t the federal government recognize that this extreme weather is a catastrophe?

A person with no shirt rests their hands on their knees in the middle of a bright street while pushing a cart with a jug of water on top.
Brandon Bell/Getty Images
A person rests while transporting water jugs on July 14 in Phoenix.

Extreme heat is the single largest cause of weather-related deaths in the United States over the last three decades. Heat-related deaths here have increased by 74 percent since 1980, one study found. Last year, Maricopa County, Arizona, reported a 25 percent spike in heat-related mortality. In Phoenix this year, where temperatures hit 110 degrees Fahrenheit 10 days in a row this month, at least 18 people have died of heat-related causes since April, while an additional 69 deaths are under investigation. 

As climate change delivers ever hotter summers, extreme heat is only set to wreak more havoc on the country—and require more and more resources to keep people safe. But the U.S. government doesn’t officially consider its deadliest—and increasingly common—weather events a major disaster. To date, the U.S. has never issued a federal disaster declaration for heat; according to the Federal Emergency Management Agencythree such requests have been denied. Why doesn’t the federal government treat extreme heat like the catastrophe it is?

The Stafford Act—which governs federal disaster assistance provided by FEMA—omits not just extreme heat but also droughts and wildfires from its list of incident types that qualify for a major disaster declaration, which states apply for in order to unlock resources from the federal government. While extreme heat is technically eligible to be treated as a limited emergency or major disaster, states applying for a federal emergency declaration must prove that the disaster has exceeded their capabilities and resources. 

Yet the federal government’s lack of preparedness around extreme heat is also due to how different heat is from other major disasters like tornadoes and hurricanes. Both offer more dramatic scenes of destruction than sweltering temperatures. Crucially, they also pose a major threat to property. 

“When I look out my window and it’s 90 degrees, it looks the same way it does at 105 or 75,” said Ashley Ward, director of the Heat Policy Innovation Lab at Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Energy, Environment and Sustainability. “Where are the uninsured property losses around heat? That’s what our disaster declaration process is built around.”

Well-established guidance for states to prepare for tornadoes and hurricanes creates a process not just to get people out of harm’s way but for governments, homes, and businesses to access federal funds to rebuild and repair property and infrastructure. Extreme heat causes relatively little damage to those assets, Ward explains, yet can rack up major death tolls and massive costs through demands on the health care system and declines in labor productivity. While Ward emphasized that FEMA and other federal agencies are actively working on how to protect against extreme heat, those protocols still lag far behind those in place to deal with other catastrophes. 

A recent study by Ward and her colleague Jordan Clark examined how heat is treated in the plans that states submit to FEMA in order to be eligible to apply for certain nonemergency disaster funds and other funding. Just half of states had dedicated sections in their plans for extreme heat. Only 12 had one or more heat-related mitigation plans. That creates problems at the county and municipal level too, where the typically underfunded, understaffed offices dealing with emergency management look to state plans as examples in crafting their own. When heat waves strike, local officials are often left to improvise protocols for opening up cooling centers and disseminating lifesaving information.

That the costs of extreme heat are harder to track also makes it difficult for governments to get funds that might allow them to be more prepared. As with other federal programs, applicants to FEMA’s Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities, or BRIC, grants need to present a cost-benefit analysis. 

“We don’t have a benefit-cost analysis standard or method for heat,” Ward said. “So if you’re a community trying to apply for BRIC funds and you’re asked to provide a benefit-cost analysis, there’s really nothing there for you to provide.” 

Protections against heat are rare on other fronts too. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration still does not have a federal guidance for extreme heat, despite the often deadly conditions faced by (among many others) agriculture and delivery workers. In much of the U.S., public officials are required to keep government buildings heated to a certain temperature during winter months. Landlords are similarly mandated to keep renters’ homes from getting too cold. 

“We do not have a like standard around cooling,” Ward said. “Prisons don’t have to be air conditioned. Schools don’t have to be air conditioned. Nursing homes and long-term care facilities don’t have to be air conditioned. There is no renters’ rights to cooling. That’s a lot of people who are extremely vulnerable to heat.”

Where vulnerability to floods and hurricanes also depends on a myriad of social factors, extreme heat acts as a kind of threat multiplier for a host of underlying factors. “Heat depends on when you’re exposed, where you’re exposed, what kinds of housing you have, and what your current state of health is,” Ward added. “Do you take certain medications that make you more vulnerable? There is a much more nuanced and complicated web of vulnerabilities associated with heat than we see with other natural hazards. There is no such thing as a blanket standard for how we understand heat risk and vulnerability.” 

Ward told me that disaster planning should account for the types of heat that can prove most dangerous from state to state, whether that be sky-high daytime temperatures in the Southwest or stifling humidity in the Southeast. It should also, though, account for who those conditions threaten most, which varies from neighborhood to neighborhood and person to person. 

“Heat waves have become deadly not only because it’s hotter for longer with less cooling but also because we’ve become more socially vulnerable,” said New York University sociologist Eric Klinenberg, author of Heat Wave, a 2002 analysis of the Chicago scorcher that claimed nearly 800 lives over just five days in 1995. “Society is older than it’s ever been. There are more people who are old and more alone than ever, and we’ve grown complacent about poverty and homelessness so that we just have enormous numbers of people in harm’s way.”

The harms heat doles out track closely to race and class, Klinenberg noted. Neighborhoods with higher shares of Black, Hispanic, and Asian populations are hotter than the whiter areas in each of the more than 1,000 urban counties researchers at the University of California-San Diego examined in a 2021 study. They found statistically significant disparities in summer heat extremes in over 70 percent of those urban counties, owing to factors that include a lack of cooling green spaces. 

While access to air conditioning is a major factor in determining who suffers most during heat waves, high temperatures exacerbate heart disease and high blood pressure as well, which are more common in lower-income populations and people of color. More than a fifth of people of color in the U.S. also live near coal-fired power plants. Not only do those facilities help drive the climate crisis, but those living close to them are more likely to develop respiratory conditions like asthma, which extreme heat can worsen.

The social connections fostered by community institutions and public services play a major role in determining who stays safe in the heat, helping reduce the number of people who might die in isolation or lack a place to go if the power goes out and air conditioners shut off. 

“If you look at a map of a city and track where people die of heat, it’s manifestly a more severe problem in poorer, segregated neighborhoods,” Klinenberg told me. “If you then only look at poor and segregated neighborhoods and compare variation among them, what you find is that places that have strong social infrastructure—grocery stores, parks, libraries, community centers—tend to have better health outcomes on a whole variety of measures, including heat deaths.” 

In early June, about a month before the heat crisis reached a fever pitch in Phoenix, Arizona Congressman Ruben Gallego introduced a bill to amend the Stafford Act so as to include extreme heat in its list of qualifying incidents for a major disaster declaration. Yet there remain deeper-seated problems in how the U.S. prepares for and responds to disasters. That the costs of extreme heat fall so disproportionately on poorer and nonwhite people is one major reason for the lack of federal preparedness for dealing with it.  That U.S. disaster response orbits so closely around protecting property is another.

“Heat waves are an invisible threat to people who we make invisible and generally ignore,” Klinenberg says. “If heat waves targeted people who lived in the wealthiest areas of American cities, our policy responses would look very different.”