Extreme Heat Should be Included as a Major Disaster Under the Stafford Act

By CHHS Extern Brittany Hunsaker 

We hear about extreme heat, particularly in Arizona, every summer. In Phoenix, the average temperature in July is 106 degrees. The term “extreme heat” refers to a period of high heat where temperatures reach above 90 degrees for at least two days. Such temperatures can lead to heat disorders and can especially harm older adults, young children, and those with underlying health concerns. The heat can often be far worse in urban areas, where cities face the “urban heat island effect,” where heat is stored in asphalt and concrete, and continues to impact the temperature throughout the night.

Arizona officials want to add extreme heat to the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) declared disasters list. The list currently includes sixteen types of declared disasters, such as hurricanes, typhoons, tropical storms, and fires. By adding extreme heat to the list, a national emergency could be declared, which would allow for federal assistance. The funding could provide resources such as pop-up shelters, cooling centers, and additional outreach to vulnerable residents, thus preventing avoidable serious harm and death. The addition of extreme heat to the list of natural disasters was supported unanimously at the U.S. Conference of Mayors earlier this month. As stated by Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego, “heat causes more deaths each year than most other natural hazards combined.” In addition to the roughly 702 heat deaths that occur each year, it is estimated that there are 67,512 emergency visits and 9,235 hospitalizations annually. Mayor Gallego addressed this issue during her annual state of the city address on April 12, 2023.

Two months later, on June 5, 2023, Representative Ruben Gallego (AZ-03) introduced legislation to amend FEMA’s list of eligible disasters to declare extreme heat a major disaster. The bill, known as the Extreme Heat Emergency Act, would take effect as early as January 2024, if passed. FEMA’s spokesperson, David Passey, stated that the assistance would become available once the need exceeded what the state and local resources could handle. The bill, which is still in the early stages of the legislative process, has been referred to the House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Economic Development, Public Buildings, and Emergency Management

This is not the first time Arizona officials have introduced legislation to combat extreme heat. On April 28, 2023, Representative Gallego, along with Senator Sherrod Brown (D-OH), and Representative Bonnie Watson Coleman (NJ-12) introduced the Excess Urban Heat Mitigation Act of 2023, which would create a grant through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to provide funding that addresses the excess urban heat and heat islands. It would provide $30 million per year between 2023 and 2030 to curb the effects of excess heat through cool pavements, cool roofs, bus stop covers, cooling centers, and local heat mitigation education efforts. The bill has been referred to the Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs. Rep. Gallego stated, “In urban areas, the effects of these rising temperatures is compounded by a lack of shade and miles of heat-absorbing concrete. And too often, it is our lower-income communities that are disproportionately impacted by this extreme urban heat. That is why I am proud to introduce this bill to address this deadly issue, keep Phoenix cooler, and ensure the hardest hit communities are prioritized.”

With temperatures continuing to increase, federal support for areas like Phoenix is vital to protect individuals from the catastrophic effects of extreme heat. If governments are able to allocate more funding toward mitigating or preventing the dangers of extreme heat, less would be needed to fund relief and recovery efforts. To learn more about the dangers of extreme heat, click here.