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Cunningham: Planning for heat emergencies

We had a long and informative presentation on climate change at this week's mayor and Council meeting.

One of the things that I brought up is what happens in Tucson during a heat emergency? Temperatures soar, our electrical grid breaks down due to both weather conditions and the fact that everyone has got their air conditioners on full blast and boom…the power goes out, and goes out for a while. I stressed the need for the city to develop a heat emergency plan much like the flood emergency plan we have.

As it turns out, Tuesday night we had record heat and several parts of town had power outages for a few hours. Even a member of my staff was affected. He was able to joke about it, but if the outage had been prolonged or if he was elderly or dependent on medical equipment it probably wouldn't have been too funny.

We are experiencing what will probably turn out to be the hottest summer on record so far. Tucson's high of 115 degrees on Wednesday broke another daily record and for the first time ever in Tucson, Wednesday also marked the third day that the high hit 115 degrees or above.

Since 1950, temperatures in Tucson have risen at 2.5 times the rate at other locales. This is the highest increase observed in the lower 48 states.

The day we had the presentation, the Star ran an AP story that noted the increase in the number of heat waves that result in deaths. One in three people worldwide experience at least 20 days a year where the temperature can kill, and that number could increase to three in four by the end of this century. According to the lead author of the of the study, "The United States is going to be an oven... and the empirical data suggest that things are only getting worse."

A nightmare heat emergency scenario was presented to us: record-breaking temperatures with night-time temperatures over 90, a power grid that shuts down because of the heat, services like hospitals, pharmacies and even gas stations and water (our pumps need power to deliver water) shutting down. It would be catastrophic. Phoenix had to shut its airport down because of the heat. What if such temperatures had been accompanied by power outages?

It doesn't even need to be a "Movie of the Week" level of disaster to be devastating. The National Weather Service identifies heat as the single deadliest weather event in the U.S., responsible for more fatalities per year than floods, lightening, tornadoes and hurricanes combined . In Arizona, heat was responsible for 1,574 deaths between 2001 and 2013; with a majority of deaths being in the 65 years and older population. A heatwave in Chicago in 1995 was estimated to be responsible for the deaths of 739 residents. The Cook County Coroner ran out of storage and ordered nine refrigerated trucks. The high? Only 106.

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The people that passed away in Chicago tended to be the elderly, but also included the sick, the very young and the poor. There were neighborhoods, however, where here were fewer people affected: "high cohesion" areas. Places with busy streets, active church congregations and where neighbors check in on neighbors. Tucson is a pretty friendly place, but many of our neighborhoods unfortunately don't fall into this category.

It's a lot of gloom and doom. There are moves that we are making as a city to reduce our use of power and thus our effect on the climate. We capped our energy consumption at 2015 levels and projects like the solar panels at Udall Park have gone a long way to make the city less dependent on dirty energy. Our urban heat island is being mitigated by programs like Trees for Tucson and SERI increasing our tree canopy, by itself, it is not sufficient. We need to do more.

We must continue to advocate for our local utility — Tucson Electric Power — to move away from coal immediately. Their time frame of a 23 percent reduction in coal in 15 years is completely inadequate. Anyone who spent five minutes outside this week knows this is not a worry for a decade and a half in the future.

As far as what we can do in a heat emergency, our city needs to develop a plan and so do individuals in our community. One of the things that was noted after the 1995 heat wave in Chicago was how slow the government response was. Here, we know the effects of heat so we should be able to say what the plan is. Even without that, we can, as neighbors, watch out for each other and support things like PCOA's elderly meal programs that make sure that no one is isolated. All of us as families need to have a plan the way people who live in hurricane and tornado-prone areas do. What will you do for water? What will you do to keep cool?

By the way, if your power goes out during the day, you are welcome to come to the Ward 2 office to cool off (if ours hasn't gone out too).

Take care of yourself this weekend. Stay cool and check in with your neighbors.

Paul Cunningham represents Ward 2 on the Tucson City Council.

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