King County’s response to last year’s record-shattering heat wave included installing bus shelters in urban hot spots, planting trees and beefing up “trusted partner” volunteer networks that can relay emergency information in nine different languages to residents.
On Monday, King County officials outlined efforts to develop a broader strategy to help residents deal with heat waves, which are forecast to increase as greenhouse gases released by human activity drive average temperatures higher. The strategy will involve outreach to “front-line communities” most at risk.
“The goal is to strengthen short term actions … while also looking at ways to adapt our built environment … particularly in developed areas where pavement and other hard surfaces can amplify heat,” said Lara Whitely Binder, King County climate preparedness program manager, during a Monday briefing with reporters.
County officials want to improve what they call “heat resilience.” This could involve preserving more green spaces to protect them from development, and helping more low-income residents find ways to cool their homes. It could also include covering more parking lots that radiate heat.
The 2021 heat wave started June 26. It peaked during a three-day period from June 28-30 as temperatures climbed past 100 degrees each day throughout Washington, and as high as 108 degrees in Seattle.
In King County, 38 people died, and hospitals reported a surge of patients with heat-related illnesses treated at emergency departments.
“There is no question that climate change is a health emergency but is often not recognized that way,” said Dr. Jeff Duchin, the King County health officer. “So, for example, extreme heat causes deaths and serious illness from heat stroke but also from heart attacks from the exacerbation of chronic lung, heart disease.”
County officials said that a lack of resources prevented an earlier launch to developing the heat strategy. But there has been a significant amount of analysis and lessons learned from the 2021 extreme heat event, according to Whitely Binder.
“We were given this opportunity, ironically, to have this event, and to learn from it and see … what worked well, and where we have opportunities to really build in more heat resilience,” Whitely Binder said.
To help finance this work, the county has applied for a $125,000 grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency
The extreme heat plan will include information gleaned from a temperature map of King County based on readings on a scorching July day in 2020. That map showed temperatures within the county varied as much as 23 degrees, with some of the hottest readings in areas with fewer trees and more pavement.
One of the hot spots, according to the map, is Seattle’s Chinatown International District.
Some of the district’s residents who lived in stifling apartments found little relief when they went outside onto streets where concrete and asphalt amplified the heat. But, amid the COVID-19 pandemic, many were wary of going to cooling shelters, according to Karia Wong, Family Resources Director at Chinese Information Service Center.
“I would have parents coming to me on the street and saying that ‘I really don’t know what do,'” Wong said.
Unsheltered county residents also were hard hit by last year’s heat wave, and they will be one of the groups that county officials consult as they develop the long-term plan.
In 2021, Duchin said, many of those living outside preferred to remain in place. In future events, there should be a way to distribute more water and provide shade or other “cooling resources,” to keep “this high-risk community safe in the heat,” Duchin said.
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