The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Extreme heat isn’t a joke. It’s a public health crisis.

A pedestrian takes a bottle of water at a Salvation Army hydration station during a heatwave as temperatures hit 115 degrees in Phoenix, June 15. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)
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When dangerously high temperatures become an inescapable part of life in Phoenix every year, people bring out a tired old joke: “It’s a dry heat.”

Sure, there’s some truth to that, but when the high temperature is well over 100 degrees for days on end, as it is now, low humidity doesn’t mean much: Each day is just brutally, menacingly hot. And, in any case, the line is amusing only if you’re privileged enough to confine your existence to a finely air-conditioned home, car and workplace, with the occasional dip in the pool.

Now consider the hundreds of people living — and trying to sleep — in tents pitched on the heat-absorbing tar and concrete surface along an off-the-beaten-path slice of downtown Phoenix. It is a dystopian scene that unfolds right outside the overcrowded central shelter, largely unseen by most city residents. Overall in Maricopa County, according to a count conducted earlier this year, more than 5,000 people are living on these now-hellish streets.

Under an extreme-heat warning, Thursday is expected to top out at 112 degrees. Friday: 109. The 10-day outlook? In the 100s all the way.

Amid a heat wave broiling Phoenix and much of the Southwest and Midwest, we can entertain ourselves by mocking the sun — frying eggs on the sidewalk, enjoying dashboard-baked cookies, posting memes — or we can choose to face heat for what it is: an urgent public health crisis.

The heat makes life a perpetual misery not only for those living on the streets but also for anyone with little money or trapped in substandard housing. Heat makes people sick. Heat kills. And more people in each of the past five years have been hospitalized and died in Arizona because of the heat, in large part because of climate change.

Nightfall hasn’t brought much relief. One night during the current heat wave, the temperature didn’t drop below 90 degrees — the earliest in the year that has ever happened in Phoenix, according to Isaac Smith, a National Weather Service meteorologist. But most of the 113 cooling stations in Phoenix and elsewhere in Maricopa County do not stay open overnight.

If your air conditioner breaks down — or if you’re like the four construction workers I met this week at the mobile home they share in West Phoenix, who can afford to run the A/C for only a few hours a day — you’re out of luck.

I sat down to talk to them about 5 p.m., when the heat is at its worst, beating down from above and radiating from the pavement. They were eating rice and eggs, their first meal since leaving home for work at 3 a.m., they said. The front door was open to let some fresh air in. The curtains were drawn on every window to keep the sun out. It felt as hot inside as it did outside.

Mobile homes make up 6 percent of the homes in sprawling Maricopa County, but people who live in them accounted for 30 percent of all heat-related indoor deaths between 2008 and 2018. David Hondula, who leads the Heat Response and Mitigation Office in Phoenix, told me that people who live in mobile homes “fall into interesting gaps of affordability of services.”

In less carefully bureaucratic words: The economic prosperity in Arizona that Gov. Doug Ducey (R) loves to tout hasn’t trickled down to them.

Phoenix is among the first cities in the country to have an office focused on heat response and mitigation, and Hondula, an environmental sciences professor at Arizona State University, is its first director. “The scale of the challenge,” he says, “is significant.”

One hurdle: The fiercely competitive real estate market makes it tough for the city to find available buildings and land to open more cooling centers.

Then there is the plan to achieve 25 percent tree canopy cover by 2030. The project has fallen woefully behind schedule, though Hondula said there are now money and political will invested in realizing that goal.

The city is also investing in “cool pavement” (an asphalt coating that reflects more sunlight and absorbs less heat), using federal dollars to weatherize mobile homes and working with more than 30 organizations to get relief — drinking water, cooling towels, hats and sunscreen — into the hands of those who need it.

Helping people get off the streets, and out of mobile homes, and into safe and reliable housing options would be a much bigger win than getting bottles of water into their hands. But weak tenant protections feed stubbornly high eviction rates in a state that has among the lowest stocks of affordable housing in the country.

“There’s a lack of political will, basically, to care for those who don’t have money,” said Stacey Champion, a community advocate who has volunteered her time over many years to address Phoenix’s disparities.

Of the city’s many disparities, the most dangerous one right now is the temperature gap between those in safely air-conditioned spaces and those left to the merciless sun.