The 2021 heat wave was the deadliest weather event in Washington state history. Hundreds died. What has the state learned from this event and is it better prepared for the next one?
MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
The Pacific Northwest is feeling its first heat wave of the year. It comes just over a year after the region suffered its most extreme heat ever. Hundreds of people died. Since that warning shot, the region has been trying to prepare for a warmer future. Reporting by John Ryan of KUOW.
JOHN RYAN, BYLINE: Seattleites are hoping this time isn’t as bad as last time, when 911 calls poured in.
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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: 911 – what are you reporting?
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Hello. I just passed Kenmore Park & Ride, and there was a person lying on the ground. It’s 102, and they had a…
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Incapacitated person who somehow passed out, sleeping…
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: We’ve been extremely busy everywhere today due to the weather, so it might be a while before we leave.
RYAN: More people in the Seattle area are making 911 medical calls than ever before. Heat-related emergency room visits increased 70-fold.
STEVE MITCHELL: They’ve seen a career of serious heat-related illnesses and, sadly, people dying within 8 hours.
RYAN: ER doctor Steve Mitchell runs the ER at Harborview Hospital in Seattle. He says the extreme heat last summer pushed hospitals to their limits. One of them nearly ran out of ventilators. Another cooled heatstroke patients in ice-filled body bags. Then he almost ran out of ice cream. Since then, health officials have aimed to avoid a repeat. Temperatures this week are not expected to match last year’s heat dome…
MITCHELL: But we’re not taking any chances.
RYAN: Area hospitals have stepped up their system to redirect ambulances to less crowded emergency rooms and made other preparations. Providence St. Peter’s Hospital in Olympia had to send more than 100 staff home last year to reduce the load on its air conditioners. CEO Darin Goss says that’s what was needed to keep patient rooms cool.
DARIN GOSS: It was a wake-up call for the impacts of climate change. Having several days over 100 degrees – really – was tough for us.
RYAN: Goss says the difficulties of the past year have caused the hospital to make some changes.
GOSS: It really led us, this year, to make the difficult decision to rent portable coolers to be ready.
RYAN: The chillers are large diesel-powered units mounted on trailers outside the main hospital building. Goss says it was a tough decision because of the cost, adding diesel cooling was also a setback to the hospital’s efforts to be carbon neutral by the end of the decade. The Seattle area has long had a mild climate. Most homes don’t have air conditioning.
JULIA KITCH: Washington State is not really built for that kind of heat.
RYAN: Julia Kitch is at a streetcar station in Seattle. She happens to work for a heating and air conditioning contractor.
KITCH: I work in service, so I get all the phone calls for all the overheating equipment.
RYAN: Even Kitch, who works in industry, hasn’t been able to get air conditioning for his house recently. Local officials have issued heat warnings and advice in multiple languages and opened cooling centers for those without a place to cool off. But climate often changes faster than government.
JAY INSLEE: We are doing 100 things to respond in the short term.
RYAN: Washington Governor Jay Inslee says the state is doing what it can to prevent heat waves from killing people. The city of Seattle has developed a heat action plan, but it’s still in draft form and a county plan won’t be completed for another year. Inslee says government at all levels must do more.
INSLEE: Unless we attack climate change at its source, there aren’t enough ice cubes or air conditioners on the planet to protect us.
RYAN: As long as humanity continues to add heat-trapping gases to the atmosphere, we can expect heat waves to get worse. Back at the light rail station, Julia Kitch says her No. 1 concern without air conditioning is her dog, Arlo (ph).
KITCH: I’m just going to take my dog to work with me.
RYAN: It may seem small on a planet that’s starting to spiral out of control, but Kitch has done something else for Arlo. She bought him slippers so he wouldn’t burn his paws on the sidewalk. For – News, I’m John Ryan in Seattle.
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