Monday, June 19, 2000

New heat warning possible lifesaver

System would give advance notice

By Seth Borenstein
Knight Ridder Newspapers

        WASHINGTON — Sweltering cities should get a warning this summer before killer heat waves strike.

        A new Internet-based “excessive heat” forecast, created this month by the National Weather Service, predicts the likelihood of a deadly heat wave up to two weeks in advance. The system is designed to give public health officials and emergency managers early warning so they can set heat relief plans in motion.

        That could complement a new Tristate effort to prevent a repeat of last year's 18 heat-related deaths. Officials laid out a plan this month to issue heat warnings based on weather forecasts rather than waiting for at least two days of excessive temperatures.

        Heat affects some regions more severely, said Larry Kalkstein, the nation's premier heat death researcher. Places accustomed to heat, such as Miami and Atlanta, are built to withstand higher temperatures and there are fewer heat deaths because people are more acclimated to it, he said.

        Eventually, weather forecasters hope to customize the new heat warning to individual cities. Mr. Kalkstein already has started such a program in Cincinnati.

        “Most people view heat as an inconvenience, and they don't realize the awesome power of heat when it hits a city and stays there for a few days,” said Dr. Michael McGeehin, a division director at the National Center for Environmental Health, which is part of the Centers for Disease Control and Pre vention in Atlanta.

        What the weather bureau calls excessive heat isn't the sweat-it-out-and-complain- until-it-gets-cooler-at-night heat, or even the quick 109-degree scorcher that buckled a highway in the San Francisco area this week. It's the day-in, day-out, no-relief-at-night heat wave, which in the last decade overtook flooding to become America's biggest weather-related killer.

        Massive heat deaths strike in a region from about Portland, Maine, west to St. Paul, Minn., south through Kansas City, Mo., to about Oklahoma City and back east to the North Carolina-South Carolina border, said Mr. Kalkstein, a professor at the University of Delaware's Center for Climatic Research.

        Heat kills an average of 193 people a year, compared with 99 for floods, 58 for lightning, 57 for tornadoes, 26 for cold and 14 for hurricanes, according to the National Weather Service. And that's only direct deaths. When heat is viewed as an indirect factor, in illnesses such as heart attacks, as many as 2,000 people a year die from it, Mr. Kalkstein said. Heat mostly kills elderly people and infants less than a month old.

        A 17-day heat wave in Chicago killed 465 people in July 1995. That summer, heat killed 1,021 people across the United States.

        “The CDC views those deaths as preventable,” Dr. McGeehin said. “With the proper precautions we can save these people's lives. That's why the warning system is so important.”

        Mr. Kalkstein's studies show most heat deaths occur when the heat lasts for a long period and temperatures don't drop at night. Night cooling is important because it allows the body to recover from the day's heat shock, Dr. McGeehin said.

        So the weather service's heat forecast is for days that have an average day-night heat index (that's the “feels-like” temperature that factors humidity and air temperature together) of 85 degrees for at least three days out of five. If the temperature is 95 degrees and the humidity is 80 percent, for example, the heat index would be 136.

        Increased computer power and a better understanding of the quirky physics of weather now allow meteorologists to predict extreme weather with some degree of confidence and accuracy, said Ed O'Lenic, head of climate operations at the weather service's Climate Prediction Center in Camp Springs, Md., a Washington suburb.

        “That gives us a much better opportunity to imitate nature” in forecasts, Mr. O'Lenic said.

        The new excessive heat outlook is the third in a set of extreme weather forecasts the weather service is putting on the Internet to help emergency planners. The first, a weekly forecast of general weather threats, started in the fall of 1997. This year, the weather service added a weekly national drought outlook.

        But the heat outlook is updated daily, Mr. O'Lenic said. That's crucial to public health officials.

        “Advance notice is extremely helpful,” said Jeff Moran, a spokesman for the Philadelphia Department of Public Health. “Deploying a response system on short notice can be difficult, especially during the summertime when many of your staff may be on vacation.”

        Philadelphia is one of the hardest working cities when it comes to preventing heat deaths, Mr. Kalkstein said. Block captains knock on the doors of elderly people to check on them during heat emergencies, cooling stations are set up, hours are extended for senior citizen centers, a hot line is established, and water and power aren't cut off for people who don't pay their bills.


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