Oroville Mercury-Register

Phoenix, other cities keep growing as climate danger rises

- By Anita Snow

PHOENIX » The mustardcol­ored apartments built as public housing more than half a century ago are among the hottest spots in Phoenix, with only a few scrawny trees and metal clotheslin­e poles offering shade in dusty courtyards.

The two-story stucco structures in Edison-Eastlake, a historical­ly Black neighborho­od that has become majority Latino, are among the last still standing halfway through a sixyear redevelopm­ent project that aims to better protect residents from extreme heat amid a megadrough­t in the West.

Phoenix was always scorching, but climate change has made the nation’s fifth-largest city even hotter, with temperatur­es in early September still climbing to 111 degrees (43.8 Celsius). Conditions weren’t much better in Las Vegas, some 300 miles (483 kilometers) to the north, where the thermomete­r hit 106 degrees (41.3 Celsius).

But in one of the more remarkable findings from the 2020 census, the searing weather has not deterred Americans from settling in such places. The desert cities are in two of the five fastest-growing counties in the U.S., and new population data shows that people keep flocking to communitie­s where climate change makes life more uncomforta­ble and more precarious.

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

Jobs have driven much of the growth. According to a census report released late last month, business investment­s in the desert Southwest expanded by more than twice the national average every decade between 1950 and 2010 and continue to increase, with health care growth leading the way.

Risk index map

But the burgeoning population also exposes more people to peril.

A risk index map by the Federal Emergency Management Agency found that the nation’s five fastestgro­wing cities — Phoenix, Las Vegas, Houston, Fort Worth and Seattle — are in counties at relatively high to very high risk of natural disaster. The risks include hurricanes, flooding, wildfires and heat waves — all phenomena associated with climate change.

The people at greatest risk are often in poor and racially diverse communitie­s where many households lack the means to cope with disasters, including heat waves that are more frequent, widespread and severe.

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

Her nonprofit and others have sought insight from Edison-Eastlake residents like Rosalyn Gorden, who described sitting on blistering metal bus benches and competing with homeless individual­s for shade.

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

“The older buildings just had swamp coolers that because of their age frequently had to be serviced or repaired,” she said, referring to the coolers typically placed in or by a window that circulate evaporated water.

Extreme heat is the leading cause of weatherrel­ated deaths, triggering heat strokes, heart attacks and kidney failures, especially in desert locales where people don’t always realize they are overheated because sweat dries rapidly in the arid air.

Deaths and warming

More than one-third of the world’s annual heat deaths are due directly to global warming, according to a study published in May in the journal Nature Climate Change. It included about 200 U.S. cities and found over 1,100 yearly deaths from climate change-caused heat, many in the East and Midwest, where many homes lack air conditioni­ng.

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

The rising death tolls are challengin­g government­s to protect vulnerable population­s and to ensure there is enough water for everyone as the drought and increasing­ly hot summers drain reservoirs fed by the Colorado River.

Those challenges will only grow as cities keep attracting more people.

Maricopa County’s population 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-expanding U.S. city with 11.2% growth, the census confirmed its status as the fifth largest, surpassing Philadelph­ia’s 1.603 million, with 1.608 million people.

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