Americans flock to cities at risk of extreme natural disasters-NBC 5 Dallas-Fort Worth

The mustard-colored apartments, built as public housing more than half a century ago, are among the hottest spots in Phoenix, with only a few shaded trees and metal clotheslines that provide shade in dusty courtyards.

The two-story stucco structures in Edison-Eastlake, a historic black neighborhood that has become a Latino majority, are among the last to remain halfway through a six-year redevelopment project aimed at better protecting residents from extreme heat in the middle of a mega-drought in the West.

Phoenix has always been burning, but climate change has made the country’s fifth largest city even warmer, with temperatures in early September still rising to 111 degrees (43.8 Celsius). Conditions were not much better in Las Vegas, about 483 kilometers to the north, where the thermometer hit 106 degrees (41.3 Celsius).

But in one of the more notable findings from the 2020 census, the burning weather has not deterred Americans from settling in such places. Desert cities are in two of the five fastest growing counties in the United States, and new population data show that people continue to flock to communities where climate change makes life more uncomfortable and more insecure.

“In the Southwest, we’re now re-imagining our environment,” said Nancy Brune, CEO of Nevada’s nonprofit Guinn Center, a think tank that has studied how extreme heat affects communities. “We must 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 investment in the desert’s southwest expanded by more than double the national average each decade between 1950 and 2010 and continues to rise, with health growth at the forefront.

But the growing population is also exposing more people to danger.

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 with relatively high to very high risk of natural disasters. Risks include hurricanes, floods, wildfires and heat waves – all phenomena associated with climate change.

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

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

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

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

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

Extreme heat is the leading cause of weather-related deaths, triggering heat stroke, heart attack and kidney failure, especially in desert areas where people do not always realize they are overheated because sweat dries quickly in the dry air.

More than a third of the world’s annual heat deaths are due to direct 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 annual deaths due to climate change caused by heat, many in the east and midwest, many homes lacking 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 toll is urging governments to protect vulnerable populations and ensure there is enough water for all, as droughts and increasingly hot summers drain reservoirs born of the Colorado River.

These challenges will only grow as cities attract more people.

Maricopa County’s population jumped 15.8% over the past decade to 4.4 million as people avoided rising temperatures fleeing more expensive areas like California. Not only was Phoenix the fastest growing 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.

The increase in Clark County, which includes Las Vegas, received a major boost from residents who identified themselves as Hispanics or Latinos, who make up more than 30% of the population.

Environmental activist Cinthia Moore said she has seen Clark County populations explode as more people move to southern Nevada, even though her largely Latin American eastern Las Vegas neighborhood is enduring more frequent heat waves.

“People here do not go outside in the heat unless they have to,” said Moore, Nevada, organizer of the Moms Clean Air Force group.

Moore said the heat is particularly harsh for low-income tenants who cannot install solar panels to save energy costs and must rely on landlords to repair broken air conditioners.

Three years ago, a 72-year-old woman in the Phoenix area of ​​her home died after Arizona’s largest power tool shut down her service for non-payment of $ 51. This year, the tool suspended interruptions and waived delay fees through Oct. 15.

Yet only 15% of Maricopa County’s heat-related deaths occurred indoors last year. Most of these people had air conditioning that was either broken or off.

The other 85% died outside, illustrating the dangers to people with landscaping or construction or those without cars who have to walk, cycle or take public transport.

Individual decisions such as reducing your water consumption on your lawn or not using animal products can make a long-term difference and prevent drought, says behavioral researcher Sweta Chakraborty.

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

Both cities intend to plant tens of thousands more drought-resistant 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 surveys suggested adding water sources, gas station gas stations and misters at transit stops.

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

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

Edison-Eastlake was once home to Arizona’s largest concentration of public housing and suffered decades of crime and destruction. With a $ 30 million grant from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the city is replacing 577 obsolete public housing units with over 1,000 new mixed incomes, affordable and market-rate units. Several trees and other vegetation are imagined.

It is an optimistic vision for what the area can become – and the kind of projects that may become more necessary if the city continues to grow.


Associated Press authors Michael Schneider of Orlando, Florida, and Angeliki Kastanis of Los Angeles contributed to this report.


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