Phoenix, Las Vegas and more continue to grow as climate danger increases

PHOENIX – The mustard-colored apartments built as social housing over half a century ago are among the hottest places in Phoenix, with just a few skinny trees and metal clothesline poles providing shade throughout. the dusty courtyards.

The two-story stucco structures of Edison-Eastlake, a historically black-turned-predominantly Latin neighborhood, are among the last still standing halfway through a six-year redevelopment project that aims to better protect residents from the heat extreme in the midst of a mega-drought in the West.

Phoenix was still scorching hot, but climate change made the nation’s fifth-largest city even hotter, with temperatures in early September still climbing to 111 degrees. Conditions were not much better in Las Vegas, some 300 miles north, where the thermometer reached 106 degrees.

But in one of the 2020 census’s most notable findings, the scorching weather did not deter Americans from settling in such places. Desert cities are found in two of the five fastest growing counties in the United States, and new demographics show people continue to flock to communities where climate change is making life more uncomfortable and precarious. .

“In the Southwest, we are now re-imagining our surroundings,” said Nancy Brune, executive director of the nonprofit Guinn Center of Nevada, a think tank that has studied how extreme heat affects people. communities. “We have to consciously make sure that we and our buildings can withstand the heat. “

Jobs have been the engine of much of the growth. According to a census report released late last month, business investment in the Southwest Desert grew more than twice the national average each decade between 1950 and 2010 and continues to rise, with growth in healthcare health in mind.

But the burgeoning population is also putting more people at risk.

A risk index map from the Federal Emergency Management Agency found that the country’s five fastest growing cities – Phoenix, Las Vegas, Houston, Fort Worth and Seattle – are in counties at risk relatively high to very high natural disaster. Risks include hurricanes, floods, forest fires and heat waves, all phenomena associated with climate change.

Those most at risk are often found in poor and racially diverse communities, where many households cannot afford disasters, including heat waves which are more frequent, widespread and severe.

“Until people recognize that extreme heat is a critical issue, we’re not going to see any critical changes,” said Eva Olivas, executive director of the nonprofit Phoenix Revitalization Corp., who helps revive neighborhoods.

Her nonprofit and others have sought the advice of Edison-Eastlake residents like Rosalyn Gorden, who has described sitting on enclosed metal bus benches and competing with homeless people for the ‘shadow.

The original public housing did not have air conditioning, said Gorden, who now lives in a newer complex.

“Older buildings only had swampy coolers which, due to their age, frequently needed to be serviced or repaired,” she said, referring to coolers typically placed in or near a window that circulate the evaporated water.

Extreme heat is the leading cause of weather-related death, causing heatstroke, heart attacks and kidney failure, especially in desert areas where people don’t always realize they are overheated because of the heat. sweat dries quickly in arid air.

More than a third of heat deaths worldwide are directly due to global warming, according to a study published in May in the journal Nature Climate Change. It included about 200 US cities and found more than 1,100 annual heat deaths from climate change, many in the East and Midwest, where many homes lack air conditioning.

In the west, Maricopa County in Phoenix recorded 323 heat-related deaths in 2020, and Clark County, which includes Las Vegas, had 82.

Rising death toll challenges governments to protect vulnerable populations and ensure there is enough water for everyone as drought and increasingly hot summers drain reservoirs fed by the Colorado River.

These challenges will only increase as cities continue to attract more people.

Maricopa County’s population has jumped 15.8% over the past decade to 4.4 million, as people undeterred by rising temperatures fled more expensive areas like California. Not only was Phoenix the fastest growing US city with an 11.2% growth, but the census confirmed its status as the fifth, surpassing 1.603 million Philadelphia, with 1.608 million inhabitants.

The increase in Clark County, which includes Las Vegas, was strongly encouraged by residents identifying as Hispanic or Latino, who make up more than 30% of the population.

Environmental activist Cinthia Moore said she has seen Clark County’s population explode as more people move to southern Nevada, even as her largely Latin-eastern Las Vegas neighborhood suffers more frequent heat waves.

“People here don’t walk outside in the heat unless they have to,” said Moore, Nevada organizer for the Moms Clean Air Force group.

Moore said the heat is especially tough on low-income tenants who can’t install solar panels to save energy costs and have to rely on homeowners to fix broken air conditioners.

Three years ago, a 72-year-old Phoenix-area woman died in her home after Arizona’s largest electric utility cut service for non-payment of $ 51. This year, the utility suspended disconnections and waived late fees until October 15.

Yet only 15% of heat-related deaths in Maricopa County last year occurred indoors. Most of these people had the air conditioning on or off.

The remaining 85% died outdoors, illustrating the dangers to people with landscaping or construction jobs, or those without a car who must walk, cycle or take public transportation.

Researchers at Arizona State University’s Morrison Institute and the Guinn Center recently conducted parallel extreme heat studies and sought ideas from community leaders in various neighborhoods in Phoenix and Las Vegas. Many of them noted a lack of shade.

The two cities plan to plant tens of thousands of additional drought-tolerant trees in vulnerable areas, but this increases the need for more water, especially with young trees.

Phoenix also plans to install 400 shelters at bus stops over the next few years. Residents of Phoenix and Las Vegas interviewed for the studies suggested adding water fountains, water bottle filling stations and foggers at transit stops.

The nonprofit group Trees Matter is working to increase canopy coverage in low-income Phoenix colored neighborhoods, especially around schools identified by health officials as in need of shade, a said Aimee Esposito, executive director of the group.

The Edison-Eastlake Project is a model for cities seeking to protect residents from the heat, said David Hondula, associate professor at Arizona State University’s School of Geographical Sciences & Urban Planning.

Once home to Arizona’s largest concentration of social housing, Edison-Eastlake has suffered decades of crime and scourge. Thanks to a $ 30 million grant from the Ministry of Housing and Urban Development, the city is replacing 577 obsolete public housing units with more than 1,000 new mixed-income, affordable and market-priced housing. More trees and other plants are being considered.

It’s an optimistic view of what the region can become – and the kind of project that might become more needed if the city continues to grow.

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