Why isn’t FEMA considering an extreme heat disaster? :NPR

People rested at the cooling station at the Oregon Convention Center in Portland, Oregon, during a record heat wave in 2021. FEMA has never responded to an extreme heat emergency, but some hope this will change. (Photo by Kathryn Elsesser/AFP via Getty Images)

Kathryn Elsesser/AFP via Getty Images/AFP

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Kathryn Elsesser/AFP via Getty Images/AFP

The massive heat dome that hit the Pacific Northwest in 2021 crippled the region. Emergency services were overwhelmed. The roads buckled in the heat. Hundreds of people died.

The same year, Hurricane Ida hit the southeast of the country. Buildings were razed in Louisiana. Hundreds of thousands of people lost power. In the United States, at least 87 people have died.

Both were deadly and traumatic. But FEMA has distributed billions of dollars and months of post-disaster support to states and families hit by Ida. On the other hand, the victims of the thermal dome received no federal assistance.

This difference stems from a long-standing convention: FEMA responds to natural disasters like hurricanes or earthquakes – disasters that result in major and obvious damage to physical infrastructure. But the agency never responded to the extreme heat. Now, a coalition of environmental nonprofits, labor unions, medical professionals and environmental justice groups is calling on the agency to change that. In a petition filed Monday, the coalition asks FEMA to add extreme heat and smoke from wildfires to the list of disasters it responds to.

“Hurricanes are terrible. Earthquakes are terrible. But in reality, heat is now the number one cause of the climate emergency, regardless of the weather event,” says Jean Su, director of the energy justice program at the Center for Biological Diversity and one of the leaders of the new petition.

Climate change has intensified the risks of heat and smoke from wildfires, making what was once a manageable seasonal problem increasingly dangerous and deadly, Su says. Last year, at least 2,200 people died from the heat, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, although experts say that figure is almost certainly grossly underestimated.

“If we are truly looking at where FEMA can actually make the biggest difference, it would target and focus major disaster funding on the real health and life impacts caused by extreme heat and smoke from wildfires. “, explains Su.

FEMA’s guiding law, the Stafford Act, includes a list of 16 natural disasters that fall under the agency’s disaster response investigation. But the law’s language is designed to be flexible and include disasters that aren’t explicitly listed, says Samantha Montano, an emergency management expert at the Massachusetts Maritime Academy. After some initial debate, FEMA was authorized to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, for example, despite the fact that “pandemic” was not one of the listed disaster categories.

“Everyone in emergency management was like, well, surely this was meant to cover that,” Montano says.

Heat is a different kind of disaster

But historically, the agency has not responded to extreme heat. Part of that is due to procedural practices, says Juantia Constible, an environmental policy expert at the Natural Resources Defense Council. A state governor or tribal leader must request a disaster declaration from the U.S. president before FEMA can get involved. Few governors have made this thermal emergency request. More recently, Illinois asked the question after a deadly 1995 heat wave tested Chicago’s emergency response systems. California has asked for help fighting heat-induced wildfires in 2022.

So far, FEMA has rejected these requests because states have not demonstrated that their local resources are completely overwhelmed — a threshold the agency uses to decide whether to intervene. But that doesn’t stop FEMA from making a different decision in the future if governors ask, Montano says.

“It may not specifically talk about heat waves in [the Stafford Act], but that’s surely what we interpret as a disaster,” she says. “A lot of bad things can happen in communities. And if we have a way to use FEMA to help these communities, then I think we should do it. »

Theoretically, FEMA could respond to a heat emergency without changing the wording of the Stafford Act, according to FEMA spokesperson Daniel Llargues. “There is nothing specific in the Stafford Act that precludes a declaration for extreme heat,” he wrote in an email. “Should a circumstance occur in which an extreme heat incident exceeds state and local capacity, a request for a declaration of emergency or major disaster may be considered.”

Defining a thermal disaster

The thresholds for a heatwave to turn into something called a disaster could be high, however. Hot weather isn’t enough, says former FEMA administrator Craig Fugate. The event is expected to become truly disastrous and unexpected – a reality that is occurring more frequently due to climate change, he says. But a string of days with a heat index of 100 degrees Fahrenheit in his hometown of Gainesville, Fla., wouldn’t necessarily be a disaster. This same heat could be more impactful, or even disastrous, in a place like Wisconsin, where residents and infrastructure are not adapted to such conditions.

“Is this event so extreme that the community and people who live there would suffer serious losses or require resources that neither local governments nor the state have? Fugate asks.

However, estimating these losses remains an ongoing challenge. States typically add up factors such as damage to physical infrastructure and the costs of health care facilities and other emergency systems to demonstrate that a disaster is beyond their capacity to respond. But in the event of a thermal disaster, the impacts are less obvious and more focused on health, Constible explains.

“After a hurricane, after a big storm, devastation is in abundance. There are power lines down, buildings destroyed and entire businesses destroyed,” she says. But with heat, “most of those affected are essentially invisible to decision-makers. They die alone at home. They are homeless and dying in the streets. » Often, these heat-related deaths go uncounted or are seriously underestimated, or are counted so slowly that the true costs of a disaster are not understood until months later.

What FEMA Could Do in a Thermal Disaster

A presidential disaster declaration unlocks FEMA support during a disaster, as well as money that can help communities respond during the event and during the long recovery period that follows.

Fugate says the agency could help with the emergency response to extreme heat if a state’s governor thought he needed more help than the state’s own resources could support. FEMA could provide cooling plants, water stations and generators to air-condition residential spaces, or it could send additional medical aid if hospitals are overwhelmed with patients.

FEMA also provides resources directly to people, such as funeral assistance for loved ones lost in a disaster or medical assistance to cover the costs of seeking emergency care. Adelita Cantu, a public health nurse at the University of Texas Health, San Antonio, and member of the Alliance of Nurses for Healthy Environments, a co-signer of the petition, works with socially vulnerable and low-income communities.

Her patients “don’t turn on their air conditioning because they’re afraid of the electricity bill,” she says. “This must now be one of the safety issues we all need to think about.” Funding from FEMA to help cover electricity costs during extreme heat disasters could save lives, she said.

The agency also funds recovery and resilience efforts that help prevent similar disasters from happening again. This could include projects such as building long-term resilience centers with backup power to help people stay cool when power outages hit an area. FEMA could also address the impacts of urban heat islands or equip the homes of particularly vulnerable community members with cooling devices. But FEMA is not the only government agency capable or responsible for funding long-term resilience efforts, Fugate points out.

“Yes, it’s getting worse and worse. Yes, it’s climate-related,” Fugate says. But the question is: “Is this it?” » [heat event] something that is so unusual that it requires an emergency declaration? Or are there other federal programs that address these concerns? He emphasizes that by addressing chronic Heat-related risks are the responsibility of states and local authorities.

Petitioners asking FEMA to include extreme heat and smoke from wildfires in their investigation say risks cross the threshold from chronic to acute more often. “The current problem is that our federal emergency management agency is ill-equipped to deal with the existential emergency of our time, which is climate,” says Su. “We are no longer in material damage mode due to earthquakes and floods. But we are now at a new high level where the emergency resembles real deaths.

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