People living in urban communities are amongst those that are at higher risk of a heatwave due to the high population, pollution, and heat being trapped within the skyscrapers and infrastructure. Metropolitan cities as a whole also consume a lot more energy, thereby making them more prone to power outages during extreme heat. Sometimes the demand and consumption go beyond what the electric companies can produce at a given time. So, the question remains:
How do you survive in extreme heat?
In order to survive a heatwave, you must create a plan ahead of time. Begin by making a family plan to care for your loved ones who may be vulnerable to the heat and write out a list of nearby cooling centers. Then, prepare an emergency kit with plenty of water for everyone in your household, a NOAA radio for weather updates, and an electric fan with rechargeable batteries. Depending on your budget, you can retrofit your home and landscape to keep the temperature lower. Finally, you must plan for power outages, since they’re very common during episodes of extreme heat. In this article, we will dive into each of these topics in detail so that you feel empowered to make your plan and put it into action today!
[This is a long article about becoming prepared for extreme heat, so the links in the Table of Contents may help you to navigate through the page. If you don't have much time and want to dive right into the meat of this article, please click here. Also there’s a free checklist waiting for you at the end, so don’t forget to download that!]
Extreme heat facts
- Death Valley, in California, is said to be the hottest location on Earth.
- The highest temperature ever recorded was in Death Valley, CA. On July 10, 1913, the temperature reached 134°F (56.7°C).
- The deadliest heat wave occurred in 2010 in Russia. Approximately 56,000 people died due to overheating, droughts, drowning, fires, and smog.
- The longest continuous heat wave ever recorded lasted 101 days. This occurred in Yuma, Arizona in 1937.
- In the United States, heat waves kill more people than any other type of natural disaster.
- Most parts of the United States are susceptible to heat waves. In the last few years, heat waves have become more common and they last longer.
Extreme heat terms you should know
Extreme heat: Extreme heat may be measured differently in other countries but in the United States it’s defined as a period of at least two days where temperatures over 90°F and humidity are expected to hit a certain region. Sometimes heat waves occur with very little warning, so if your area is prone to long periods of hot weather, or long summers, then be prepared way ahead of time.
Heat index: The heat index is when heat and humidity are measured together to determine what temperature it really feels like. For example, if the temperature is 90°F and the humidity is approximately 80%, then the heat index is 113°F — meaning that even though it’s only 90°F, it actually feels more like 113°F. You can find the NOAA Heat Index chart here.
Heat wave: A heat wave, or hot wave, is defined by a period of three or more days where the temperature in the shade reaches 90°F or more. In many cases, high humidity is also a factor in heat waves.
Excessive heat watches: A watch is issued by the National Weather service a day or two before the projection of a heat wave. A watch only means that a heat wave is possible, but there’s no full guarantee.
Heat advisory: A heat advisory is issued to alert the public of the high likelihood of an approaching heat wave in a specific region. An advisory is generally issued when the heat index is projected to be more than 105°F for at least two days. An advisory should be your cue to put your preparedness plans into play. Make sure you have all the supplies necessary to stay cool, even if the power goes out— power outages are very common during extreme weather.
Excessive heat warning: An excessive heat warning means that a heat wave is affecting a specific area. With extremely high temperatures, the city may open cooling centers for the people. During a warning, hospitals and health clinics typically activate their emergency plans, because they tend to receive an increase in patient visits during that time.
Urban heat island (UHI): The urban heat island effect is experienced in large cities and metropolitan areas. Due to infrastructure and the concentration of a large population, the buildings encapsulate the heat. The surrounding rural cities might experience significantly cooler temperatures than the metropolitan hub because of the way the heat gets trapped within the city. Metropolitan areas may experience heat waves worse than the nearby areas.
Current map of places experiencing extreme heat
The National Weather Service has a variety of US maps with the current conditions but they’re small and not interactive, making them a little difficult to use. In case you want to check it out, this is their general description map and this is their radar map.
The Weather Channel has a map of the current weather conditions throughout the United States. It’s not the best map either, but it’s a little bigger that the NOAA map.
What to expect extreme heat conditions
How long do heat waves last?
Heat waves typically last 2 to 3 days but in some cases can last weeks or months. The local weather report should be able to give you a better prediction of how much time to expect.
Why is extreme heat dangerous?
Extremely high temperatures can cause a myriad of problems.
The most important concern is that extreme heat can severely compromise your health and in some cases lead to hyperthermia—the opposite of hypothermia. Severe heat can cause heat cramps, dehydration, swelling, fatigue, heat exhaustion, heatstroke, as well as worsen pre-existing heart and respiratory conditions. According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and NOAA, heat is one of the leading causes of weather-related deaths in the United States. An average of 658 people die each year due to heat-related illnesses. Small children and adults over the age of 65 are at a much higher risk of experiencing health issues due to excessive heat.
Another problem that heat poses is to the power supply. The overuse of power can cause widespread power outages, leaving people without air conditioning, fans, and other ways of keeping cool. This increases their chances of hyperthermia.
Excessive heat can also cause fires, droughts, ruin crop production and impact animals, including livestock. Not only do farmers suffer monetarily, but consumers suffer because of a food and water shortage, high demand, and increased prices. Not to mention, if you lose your home due to a fire that was linked to extreme heat.
Can I swim during a heat advisory?
How do you mitigate a heat wave?
Although we cannot mitigate the occurrence of a heat wave, we can take preventative measures to protect ourselves when they happen. These are some suggestions you should implement long before a heat wave occurs.
1. Learn the symptoms of heat-related illnesses and how to treat them, not just for people but for pets as well. Hospitals see a massive increase in patients during heat waves. Rather than having to go to the hospital, learn what the symptoms of heat stress and other illnesses are and how to prevent them altogether. This way, you can take preventative measures ahead of time and hopefully don’t have to be hospitalized. **Note: If you (or a loved one) experiences symptoms of a heat-related illness, get medical help!
2. Prepare your house for extreme heat. There are plenty of ways to retrofit your home to reduce the impact of the summer heat.
- You can paint your house (the exterior) light colors to reflect the sun, rather than dark colors which absorb it.
- For your windows, you can get heat-blocking or blackout curtains, as well as external shutters to cover the sunlight during the day.
- Check the caulking around the windows and the insulation to make sure that hot air is not seeping in from those places. In some cases, installing attic fans and vents to extract hot air can help.
- Upgrade to thermal-pane windows. If you’re a homeowner and plan to live in your home for the next 10 or more years, this could be a worthwhile investment. Thermal-pane windows are energy efficient. They reduce the amount of heat coming in from the exterior and help maintain the internal temperature of your home as well.
- Revamp your landscaping with cooling plants, trees, and mulch. Inside your house, you can add some plants that are known for keeping the temperature lower, such as aloe vera, snake plant, and Boston fern.
- Installing solar panels to your roof might be enough to run your air conditioner, but this solution is very expensive and would require a high up-front investment.
3. Sign up to a disaster registry. If you, or someone you know, are especially vulnerable to heat, either because of age, current medications, or pre-existing medical conditions, be sure to add them to your local disaster registry. This allows community responders to be prepared to assist you during an emergency. Some cities, like Philadelphia, have a hotline during extreme heat weather where people can call in and get home visits or in-person assistance. Contact your local Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) or local disaster relief organization for specific hotlines and registry information in your city.
Extreme heat safety tips
Excessive heat can be hazardous to your health so you have to learn ways to cope and stay safe. The following tips are the do’s and don’ts of heat waves.
- Stay hydrated!
- Wear light-colored loose-fitting clothing.
- Pay close attention to babies, toddlers, pregnant and nursing mothers, adults 65 years and older, people with pre-existing health conditions (such as high blood pressure and diabetes) and pets. These groups are the most vulnerable to heat-related illnesses so make sure they’re well hydrated and take notice if they show symptoms of heat stress.
- Keep the windows and blinds closed during the hotter part of the day to keep the hot air out. In the evening, open the windows and use fans to blow in cooler air.
- Soak up a few bandanas or towels with water and leave them in the freezer. Use them to cool down and switch them out as necessary. Put them on your body’s pressure points for faster results.
- During the day, hang out at the lowest level of the house. Heat rises so avoid the upstairs as much as possible.
- Go to public places that have air conditioning, such as the mall or the movies. Not only does this keep your electricity bill down, but you’d also be helping to prevent a power outage.
- Learn what the symptoms of heat-related illnesses are. The NOAA provides a great resource on the symptoms attributed to heat cramps, heat exhaustion, and heat stroke, as well as ways to treat them. You can find that information here.
- Don’t drink caffeinated drinks or alcohol. These types of drinks dehydrate you, which is exactly what you’re trying to avoid. Learn here which other drinks (and foods) cause dehydration!
- Do not eat greasy, heavy, or spicy foods. These foods make your body work harder to process them.
- Don’t turn on the oven for cooking. Instead, prepare meals that require little to no cooking, such as fresh salads and fruits. These are hearty meals you can prepare during a heat wave because they don’t require cooking.
- Don’t do exercise or outdoor work in the middle of the day. Workout at indoor gyms that have air conditioning and leave any garden work for the morning or evening when it’s not blazing hot.
- Never leave people or pets in the car, even if you’re only running a five-minute errand or going in and out of your house for a minute. Every year, children and pets die because they’re left in a hot vehicle. Your car can become a furnace in just minutes, especially during extreme heat temperatures.
For a comprehensive list of tips to stay cool, look here.
Extreme heat preparedness kit must-haves
- NOAA Weather Radio: The National Weather Service is responsible for issuing heat advisories and watches. If you download their app, they will send you notifications with updates on the projected disaster (the notifications are not limited to heat). In the event that a power outage causes Make sure to keep a radio in case the power goes out
- The OSHA Heat Safety App: This app is intended to calculate the heat index for a specific area. Anyone can use the app but it was specifically intended for outdoor workers because the risk of heat-related illnesses is higher for those who spend more time outdoors. Download the app for Android and iPhone here.
- Water and a purification method: Staying hydrated is so important during a heat wave. Since you sweat more, you also need to replenish yourself more often. During the summer months, I recommend keeping up to two gallons of water per person per day. Say you’re planning for a weeklong heat wave, then stockpile 14 gallons of water per person in your household. Remember that one of the first things to fly off store shelves during a heat advisory is water, so avoid the crowds and stockpile long before a heat wave takes you by surprise. You can store bottled water, or for a more efficient option, you can get water boxes or a tank. If you don’t have a lot of storage space, then have a method of purification in case you run out of your stored supply.
- Food: Eat light meals that keep your body cool, such as salads, smoothies, fresh veggies, and fruits. Have some salty snacks on hand as well because they help to restore the salt content in your body that gets lost through sweat, but don’t go heavy on the salty food either.
- A first aid kit: It’s always a good idea to have a first aid kit at home, in your car, and at work.
- Sunscreen: If you’re going outside at all, wear sunscreen to protect your skin. If you’re going to a pool, wear waterproof sunscreen.
- Flashlight or headlamp: Keep a light (and extra batteries!) in case the power goes out. A headlamp is the most convenient because it frees up both of your hands, but a regular flashlight will work too! Candles are not recommended because of the risk of fire and carbon monoxide. If candles are your only option, be extra cautious!
- Electric fan: A fan is a great tool for circulating stagnant hot air. An electric fan is ideal during an outage because it doesn’t connect to the electricity. Of course, you’ll need to stockpile more batteries for that. If you’re out and about, a handheld fan can also help.
- Generator and fuel: Having a generator is a smart idea because you may face power outages. A generator is necessary for larger appliances, like your refrigerator, and smaller devices, like a laptop or phone. Learn how to use a generator properly before a power outage occurs (never use one indoors!) and always have a sufficient supply of fuel to run it.
- Solar power bank: Since there may be plenty of sunshine, you can take advantage of a solar changer unit. Some chargers are portable and are able to charge mobile devices and batteries in as much as two hours. Look into different options based on your budget. A solar power bank is definitely worth it — you can even take it camping or on hikes!
- Rechargeable batteries: Since power outages are likely during a heat wave, I recommend having rechargeable batteries so you can keep charging the same ones. Their up-front cost is a bit higher than regular batteries, but you don’t have to throw them away after each use, so in the long run they’re a much better deal.
- Important documents: Important documents are vital to store during any emergency. Always keep them in a waterproof container and in a secure location.
In order to make things easier for you, I made a checklist of the must-have prep items and the do’s and don’t during a heat wave. Click the button below to print it out. It’s a good idea to keep it with all your emergency supplies, that way you can have it handy on those extremely hot days when you need some fun reading materials. 😉
More resources related to extreme heat
- If you missed it, this is the link to the complete list of tips to keep you cool on those hot summer days! Be sure to check it out.
- Did you know that certain foods can be especially counterproductive to your wellbeing during heat waves? When there are periods of extreme heat, your goal should be to remain hydrated. This list of drinks and foods are known to be dehydrating, so avoid them at all costs.
- Are you prepared for the power to go out during a heat wave? If not, check out this guide on power outage preparedness. In this other article, you can learn about how your plumbing system works—or doesn’t work— during an outage.
Raise awareness on heat wave preparedness!
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