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Medical examiner: Phoenix heat wave deaths will be record breaking

People, who are homeless, try to cool down with chilled water outside the Justa Center, a day center for homeless people 55 years and older. (Matt York/AP)
People, who are homeless, try to cool down with chilled water outside the Justa Center, a day center for homeless people 55 years and older. (Matt York/AP)

This summer’s record heatwave in Phoenix that sent temperatures soaring past 110 degrees for 31 straight days will be historically deadly, according to the Maricopa County medical examiner.

“With the way July has gone, we do expect to beat last year’s number,” says Dr. Jeff Johnston, who called in a fleet of refrigerated trucks to accommodate the anticipated surge.

It takes about six weeks for investigators to confirm that a person has died from heat exposure, which is why the county has only officially recorded 39 heat-related deaths so far this year. Another 312 deaths are under investigation.

However, Johnston says in July there was a 10% spike in the number of bodies that arrived at the medical examiner’s office during the height of the extreme heat. That also broke a record.

“These times are very stressful on us,” he says. “This is what we call a surge.”

And that surge comes at a precarious time. Homelessness in Metro Phoenix is up 46% since 2019, according to Maricopa County’s annual survey. Sky-high housing prices and the lingering economic consequences of the pandemic contribute to the rise.

“We have these multiple things overlapping at once,” says Johnston. “We’ve got the pandemic, we’ve got the substance-use disorder crisis, climate. All of these things [are] mixing together.”

People who live outdoors are particularly vulnerable to heatwaves, especially when night-time temperatures don’t drop below 90 degrees. “It feels like there’s a weight on you, like you can’t move,” says Daisy, who asked to only use her first name to protect her privacy.

Daisy lives outdoors and says she soaks sheets of cardboard with water every night to stay cool while she’s sleeping. During the latest heatwave, she feared for her life “every single day.”

“I try to drink a lot of water, but it doesn’t matter how much water I drink. I am always parched,” she says. “When we get cold water, we chug it and then end up throwing it up.”

Daisy has spent a lot of time lately at the Larkspur Christian Church respite center, where she takes a nap for a few hours during the hottest part of the day. Azuin Russell, who works at the church, says more than 2,000 people have come to the small church in the past month.

“Some of them do come with first-degree burns on their hands, on their face, because they sleep on the pavement,” says Russell. “If they’re on a substance, they don’t know that they’re having a heatstroke.”

Erik Anderson, 37, lives outdoors in Phoenix. He says a friend died during the city’s recent heatwave when temperatures exceeded 110 degrees for 31 straight days. (Peter O’Dowd/Here & Now)

Erik Anderson, 37, also comes to the church to escape the heat. But he does so with a heavy heart. He says a mentor — his “street father” known as Old Man Tim — recently died outdoors, alone with no one to help him. Anderson is certain the heat was to blame.

“Anytime I ever needed anything, I could ask him. He was a grumpy old man, but he didn’t deserve that,” Anderson says. “I hope he’s in a better place. I know he is, but I hope he’s happy now.”

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

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