Despite the fact that extreme heat has been the number one cause of weather-related deaths in the United States over the last three decades, the federal government has repeatedly declined to declare extreme heat a federal disaster.
The US government has never issued a federal disaster declaration for an extreme heat event, even as heat domes and long, uninterrupted stretches of 100-plus degree days have claimed lives in cities and states across the country in recent years.
Given the state of the climate change, the federal government’s unwillingness to issue disaster declarations for extreme heat events feels like a potentially dangerous anachronism — a throwback to a time before heat began to routinely upend American summers.
The federal government’s ability to issue disaster declarations is constrained by the terms of The Stafford Act, the law governing FEMA disaster aid. The act, passed in 1988 and based on a previous Disaster Relief Act, omits extreme heat, droughts, and wildfires from its list of incidents that can qualify for disaster declarations.
As Kate Aronoff writes in The New Republic, extreme heat can theoretically be treated as a limited emergency or major disaster, but states applying for relief must prove to the federal government that the disaster has exhausted their own capacity to respond.
The situation speaks to broader concerns observers have about the federal government’s infrastructure for dealing with extreme heat, particularly as tens of millions of Americans are expected to experience temperatures and heat indexes this week above 100 degrees.
Extreme heat, once a rarity in most parts of the country, is rapdily becoming a summer norm. The Southwest region has been particularly hard hit so far this summer, but other states and regions have also experienced stretches of extreme weather — not to mention dangerously poor air quality due to the effects of wildfire smoke.
It’s not just the federal government that seems ill-equipped to deal with the realities of heat emergencies in a rapidly warming climate. A report written by Jordan Clark and Ashley Ward at Duke University found that only half of all US states had a dedicated section in their FEMA-mandated state hazard mitigation plans (SHMP) for dealing with extreme heat, and an even smaller number had heat-specific mitigation strategies.
According to the Duke report, only seven states had robustly included heat as a hazard in their SHMPs: Oregon, California, Utah, Arizona, Wisconsin, Vermont, and Massachusetts. A number of the states most exposed to the dangers of extreme heat, including New Mexico, Texas, and Louisiana, barely deal with heat at all in their SHMPs.
Given the heat the country has already experienced this summer, it’s a serious cause for concern. The monetary risks of extreme heat are harder to calculate than the risks of other natural disasters like hurricanes, but it is clear that heat poses risks to human productivity and safety — and clear that the effects of extreme heat are being exacerbated by other societal issues as the largely country lacks uniform standards for how cool facilities like schools and prisons must be kept.
“Society is older than it’s ever been,” New York University sociologist Eric Klinenberg told Aronoff. “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.”
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