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As Texas sizzles, heat experts say preparation is needed for future extreme weather events

By Alejandra Martinez, The Texas Tribune

As Texas sizzles, heat experts say preparation is needed for future extreme weather events” was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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Texas’ unrelenting heat isn’t letting up. Meteorologists predict blazing temperatures could last into August.

While Texas is no stranger to scorching triple-digit highs, preparing for heat waves will take leveraging federal funding for extreme weather events and collaboration between leaders from all levels of government and community organizations, according to panelists at an hourlong Texas Tribune discussion on extreme heat Thursday.

The “Adapting to a Hotter Texas” event, moderated by Tribune climate reporter Erin Douglas, centered on what local governments, nonprofits and everyday people are doing to better prepare for rising temperatures. It featured Iván Meléndez, the Hidalgo County health authority, Nicole Alderete-Ferrini, climate and sustainability officer with the city of El Paso, and Stefania Tomaskovic, director for the Coalition for Environment, Equity and Resilience.

Extreme heat is the leading weather-related killer, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and can strain the heart, lungs and kidneys. It also contributes to deaths from heart attacks, strokes and other forms of cardiovascular disease.

The intensity and duration of heat waves have become more common and severe due to climate change, and the June heat wave that blanketed Texas caused thousands of heat-related illnesses statewide and at least nine deaths in South Texas.

Studies show that low-income neighborhoods and communities of color endure a far higher heat burden, and Meléndez said he is seeing high temperatures disproportionately impacting low-income residents and people of color along the Texas-Mexico border — especially those without air conditioning at home.

“Our citizens are the poorest, the most obese, most diabetic and most hypertensive, and heat exposure, and a warmer climate increase affects people who are poor and people that do not have access to other resources,” he said.

Meléndez said extreme heat has also recently become a political issue after state lawmakers passed a new law, signed by the governor, that nullified local ordinances mandating water breaks for construction workers. Last month, construction workers protested the law, which takes effect in September and overturns local water break ordinances in cities like Austin and Dallas.

Alderete-Ferrini said El Paso has seen heat-related hospital visits increase this summer.

“Why are we surprised?” Alderete-Ferrini said of the heat. “I think that a crisis should be defined by something that is unexpected. This is not unexpected.”

Alderete-Ferrini said it’s crucial for the state to move away from a reactionary response and devote resources to protecting residents from the worst effects of extreme heat.

She said El Paso has activated heat emergency plans this summer that include opening cooling centers and giving out free box fans to families. The city also has an extreme weather task force that educates residents on how to stay safe during hot weather.

Last month, the federal government announced more than $50 billion to help communities become more resilient to climate impacts like heat waves.

The panelists said they hope that money goes to long-term solutions like putting reflective pavement on roads and sidewalks to help reduce urban heat islands.

Tomaskovic said her organization works closely with frontline communities — which experience the most immediate and worst impacts of climate change — on the east side of Houston. Volunteers have spent this summer educating residents on home weatherization to help with high electricity costs. This can mean closing blinds and locking windows to ensure a tight seal or regularly changing air filters to help air conditioners work more efficiently.

“It is not required for landlords to ensure that a working air conditioner is in place and in rental homes and rental properties,” Tomaskovic said. “Even if people do have air conditioners, it’s not guaranteed that they will be effective because homes are not well insulated — all of those are big factors into how protected people are within their own homes.”

Tomaskovic said her organization is distributing air conditioners and fans to communities and teaching residents how to identify warning signs for heat stress, which can include weakness, nausea, thirst, confusion and headaches.

As the heat continues throughout the month, Tomaskovic said seeing more people volunteering to help brings her hope because Texans will need “compassion as a grounding force to make it through the next several decades” as extreme temperatures happen more frequently.

“When disasters happen, when heat waves strike, people are coming to the aid of each other,” Tomaskovic said. “It speaks to the empathy, the compassion, the consideration people have for one another and the deeper regard which we really need to see on every level from the community to our governments.”

Disclosure: The Texas Tribune is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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