Bloomberg Law
July 23, 2021, 8:00 AM

Killer Heat Waves Warrant FEMA Action Under New Authority

Michael B. Gerrard
Michael B. Gerrard
Columbia Law School

What may be the world record for the hottest temperature—130°F—occurred on July 9 in Death Valley, Calif. This was in the wake of a heat wave in the Pacific Northwest (an area where most people have no air conditioning) in late June and early July that killed at least several hundred people; more exact numbers will not be known for some time.

And after three days of intense heat that dried the vegetation into kindling, most of the town of Lytton, British Columbia, burned down on June 30 within a few hours, similar to what happened in Paradise, Calif., on Nov. 8, 2018.

Scientists have found that heat waves of this magnitude and danger would have been virtually impossible without climate change, and they will get worse.

Heat waves cause more deaths in the U.S. than any other natural disaster. Averaged over 30 years (1991-2020), 138 people die in the U.S. from heat annually, compared to 85 from floods, 69 from tornadoes, and 46 from hurricanes.

Yet the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) devotes considerable resources to dealing with floods, tornadoes and hurricanes, and little to heat. Most of FEMA’s focus is on declared disasters and emergencies, and there have been no such declarations for heat events other than droughts.

FEMA is accustomed to dealing with the tremendous physical damage that major storms can cause to the built environment. While heat waves kill large numbers of people (not to mention livestock, crops and wildlife), their damage to infrastructure (such as melted pavement and wires) is relatively minor.

But FEMA now has new, largely untested authority to deal with heat waves.

Preparing in Advance to Prevent Heat-Related Deaths

The Disaster Recovery Reform Act of 2018 allows 6% of the aggregate amount of federal disaster grants provided each year to go to a pre-disaster hazard mitigation program—in other words, to prepare for disasters before they happen, and not just cope with them afterwards. FEMA has set up a new Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities (BRIC) program to carry out this mandate and awarded $700 million in the first year of this program (fiscal year 2020).

Over the long term, heat waves can be reduced by slashing greenhouse gas emissions. But that’s a job for the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Energy, and other federal, state, and local agencies and the private sector, not FEMA.

However, there is a great deal that FEMA can do in advance to reduce the death toll from heat waves.

One is cooling centers—air-conditioned places where people can go when their homes are too hot. These can be convention centers, sports arenas, school auditoriums and cafeterias, recreation centers, houses of worship, and other large spaces set up with chairs and cots.

Many cities have them, but this is often haphazard, and many people who could use them do not know about them or have no way to get there. FEMA could establish a comprehensive program to ensure that cooling centers are available nationwide, well publicized and accessible. This would not involve new construction—only planning, organization and supplies. (Ideally the cooling centers would have emergency generators, because as Texas just learned, during heat waves the power is more likely to go off.)

One major problem is the urban heat island effect. It can be as much as 20°F hotter in some parts of a city than others, and temperatures can vary even within a few blocks. That is mostly because the asphalt and cement on sidewalks, dark roofs, building exhaust systems, motor vehicles, and other aspects of cities absorb or emit heat. This effect tends to be much worse in disadvantaged communities, leading to serious racial disparities.

Concerted efforts to plant and maintain street trees and other vegetation can make a big difference. So can the inexpensive job of painting roofs white; that reflects sunlight and can reduce the heat inside buildings by several degrees.

So far, these programs to reduce the heat island effect are almost entirely local, and they are often poorly funded. In anticipation of future heat wave disasters, FEMA could lead a nationwide effort to combat this effect and help pay for some of it, especially in communities that can ill afford it. This would be quite consistent with President Biden’s priority for environmental justice.

Many other legal tools are available to cope with extreme heat. Federal and state occupational health and safety agencies could set standards for worker exposure (as California and Oregon have done). States and cities could require landlords to provide cooling in the summer as well as heat in the winter (as Arizona has done). Low-income people could be provided with money not only to buy air conditioners, but to run them. The list goes on.

But FEMA could play a central role in helping to make sure all this happens, and save many lives in the process.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. or its owners.

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Michael B. Gerrard is Andrew Sabin Professor of Professional Practice at Columbia Law School, and faculty director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law.

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