By Corinne Murdock |
A majority of heat deaths in Maricopa County are attributable to methamphetamine, according to the latest Maricopa County Department of Public Health heat deaths report.
53 percent of heat deaths involved meth last year, or 226 deaths. 67 percent of deaths involved some type of substance abuse. The county noted that the proportion of heat deaths involving drug use has increased over the years.
The homeless make up the largest class of all heat deaths: 178 met that characterization (150 were classified as having “unknown” living situations). Nearly 70 percent of all heat deaths last year occurred in urban areas.
Although the homeless made up the most heat deaths last year and in 2020, that wasn’t the case from 2012 to 2019. More non-homeless individuals suffered heat deaths during those years than the homeless.
Phoenix had the most heat deaths last year, 245, followed far behind by Mesa at 36 deaths and then Glendale at 22 deaths. Scottsdale and Tempe both had 10 deaths, Avondale and Peoria both had 8 deaths, Chandler had 7 deaths, and Gilbert had 6 deaths.
Phoenix also holds the vast majority of the homeless population in the county. The Maricopa Association of Governments reported a 36% increase in homeless individuals in the county from 2019 to last year. That increase was most greatly felt at the very heart of downtown Phoenix, evident in the mass homeless encampment called “The Zone.”
Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego has used heat deaths to bolster her campaign to declare The Valley’s regular summer heat as a federal emergency. Such a declaration would result in the awarding of federal relief funds.
During her annual state of the city address in April, Mayor Gallego petitioned the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to qualify extreme heat as a disaster by adding the regular seasonal occurrence to its national emergency declarations categorization.
A FEMA recognition would bring in more federal funding. The city has a number of heat mitigation projects that would likely benefit from such funding, like the manufactured shade and drinking water access areas known as “cool corridors,” which are determined on an equity basis, and the special sunlight absorption streets known as “cool pavement.” Those initiatives were unique creations under Mayor Gallego’s administration.
Mayor Gallego was also responsible for the creation of one of the first heat mitigation offices within city government: the Office of Heat Response and Mitigation (OHRM). The city established the office with $2.8 million in 2021, with the explicit attempt to combat “urban heat”: the theory that urbanization causes higher temperatures.
Presently, the OHRM doles out COVID-19 relief federal funding provided by the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) for annual heat relief grants. These grants are earmarked for nonprofit, charitable, small business, and faith-based organizations existing within the city-recognized Maricopa Association of Governments Heat Relief Network that claim negative impacts from the COVID-19 pandemic. OHRM will give out a maximum of $450,000 total, with each recipient receiving anywhere from $10,000 to $25,000.
A major focus of the OHRM is providing heat respite for the homeless. The latest update from OHRM, issued last summer, announced initiatives costing millions to increase the comfort of the homeless residing within the The Zone: the creation of seven new shade structures; distribution of insulated and reusable water bottles, hats, sunscreen, personal misters, towels, ice chests with water; and hundreds of shelter beds for 24/7 heat respite.
The first and current OHRM director is Arizona State University (ASU) professor David Hondula, who teaches within the Global Institute of Sustainability. Hondula was named director of the office overseeing the pavement initiative within weeks of publication of a joint study on the city’s “cool pavement” infrastructure, which the city knew ahead of expansion would make people hotter.
Although FEMA hasn’t heeded Gallego’s call, her Congressman ex-husband did. Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-AZ-03) introduced the Extreme Heat Emergency Act last month.
Per the latest county heat deaths report, fatalities decreased from 2012 to 2014. 2012 totaled about one-fourth of last year’s deaths and 2014 reached a low of 61 deaths. Deaths then increased from 84 in 2015 to 199 in 2019, spiking to 323 in 2020 and steadily increasing since then.
The county report also revealed that African American and Native American individuals made up the most heat deaths: 13 per 100,000 and 9 per 100,000, respectively. White individuals followed closely behind at nearly 8 per 100,000 deaths.