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Phoenix boosts spending on heat relief as weather-related casualties skyrocket

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Nice, dry heat is one of the things that draws people to Phoenix. But in recent years, climate change has driven temperatures up, and it's been too much. So the local governments are doing something about it - spending more on heat relief than ever, hoping to bring down the skyrocketing number of heat-related deaths. From member station KJZZ, Katherine Davis-Young reports.

KATHERINE DAVIS-YOUNG, BYLINE: Barbara Gaeke has lived in a modest house in the retirement community of Sun City West for 30 years. She loves Arizona and doesn't mind the hot summers...

(SOUNDBITE OF SCREEN DOOR SLAMMING SHUT)

DAVID-YOUNG: ...As long as she can relax inside, in her big recliner.

It feels nice and cool in here today.

BARBARA GAEKE: Oh, wonderful. You don't know what we went through.

DAVID-YOUNG: A few weeks ago, as temperatures started climbing to triple digits, Gaeke's air conditioner stopped working. Gaeke, who's 90, with a number of health problems, turned up the ceiling fans, but soon felt weak and nauseous.

GAEKE: I was so sick because I was so hot, and I just couldn't take the hot weather.

DAVID-YOUNG: Gaeke's granddaughter, Amber Stilson, takes care of her full time. They rely on Gaeke's small retirement income. Replacing an AC unit could cost more than $10,000.

AMBER STILSON: I was just afraid for her because, like, she couldn't afford it, and she couldn't live like this. So I didn't know what the next step would be, so I just called everywhere.

DAVID-YOUNG: Eventually, she ended up on the phone with Maricopa County. They said they'd replace Gaeke's AC free of charge.

JACQUELINE EDWARDS: We are further ahead of the game than we ever have been when it comes to addressing heat relief in our community.

DAVID-YOUNG: Jacqueline Edwards, with the county, says the AC replacement program is one of several new initiatives to mitigate the effects of heat. Over the past year, the county has replaced about 500 units for low-income homeowners. They plan to replace another 5- to 600 in the months ahead.

EDWARDS: This could mean a matter of life and death.

DAVID-YOUNG: That's not hyperbole. County analysis shows when heat deaths happened indoors last summer, the majority of the time the AC was not working. But about three-quarters of the county's heat deaths in recent years have occurred outdoors. County officials say the biggest threat is not just scorching temperatures. It's that the number of unsheltered people in the region is triple what it was 10 years ago. Danielle McMahon oversees dining services for the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. She witnesses firsthand how the heat strains unsheltered people.

DANIELLE MCMAHON: People come in. They're definitely in need of reprieve from the elements. It's very hard to sleep at night when it's so hot outside, so people are exhausted.

DAVID-YOUNG: This summer, the county is spending millions to partner with metro Phoenix cities on heat relief for homeless residents. They'll open daytime cooling shelters, fund street outreach teams and even pay for hotel vouchers and transportation. McMahon's dining hall is getting funding, too.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOOR CREAKING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: You're welcome.

DAVID-YOUNG: It's opening in the afternoons as a cooling center. Then they'll fold up the tables and fill the building with 200 beds for overnight heat relief.

Oh, so you have the beds, like, all through this hallway?

MCMAHON: Yeah. Yeah.

DAVID-YOUNG: It sounds like every inch that you can...

MCMAHON: Yep. We just try to max out the capacity, keeping it safe, but we want to get as many people inside as we can.

DAVID-YOUNG: The dining hall has been used as a makeshift overnight shelter in the past, but it can only operate that way when outside funding is available. This year, the funding is massive. The county is putting nearly $14 million toward this shelter, the city partnerships and the AC program. That's on top of 500 million the Board of Supervisors has directed toward affordable housing and homelessness solutions since 2020.

But heat is only going to become a bigger challenge in coming years. The National Weather Service projects, due to climate change, Phoenix will average more than 120 triple-digit days per year by the end of this decade, and most of the funding is only temporary. It's coming out of federal pandemic aid dollars. Officials hope the unprecedented spending this summer will make enough of an impact that the county will continue to find ways to invest in some of these programs after federal funding runs out. But they say even getting just one more person out of the heat will be a success.

Back in Sun City West, Barbara Gaeke says, when she found out the county was going to help her stay cool this summer, it made all the difference in the world.

GAEKE: I was so happy, I would cry. (Crying) I would cry.

DAVID-YOUNG: For NPR News, I'm Katherine Davis-Young in Sun City West.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Katherine Davis-Young
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