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Local officials want extreme heat to be declared a federal disaster

Two major organizations that represent local authorities across the U.S. have voiced their support for a bipartisan bill that would open the door to federal aid for extreme heat.
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WASHINGTON — Blistering temperatures across the country have prompted significant concern from state and local officials who say they are struggling to manage the crisis without federal intervention.

In letters sent Thursday and first obtained by NBC News, two of the country’s top organizations representing local officials on the federal level pushed Congress to pass a bill to declare extreme heat emergencies.

The U.S. Conference of Mayors wrote to a bipartisan trio in the House, Reps. Ruben Gallego, D-Ariz., Sylvia Garcia, D-Texas, and Mark Amodei, R-Nev., who had introduced a bill last month, known as the Extreme Heat Emergency Act, that would add extreme heat to FEMA’s list of major disaster qualifying events.

In the letter from the National League of Cities, addressed to Gallego, CEO Clarence Anthony wrote: "By including extreme heat events in the definition of a major disaster ... this legislation will empower local governments to establish cooling centers, support vulnerable populations, assist the homeless, and enhance healthcare services during extreme heat events.”

The three lawmakers represent Arizona, Texas and Nevada, which are among the worst heat-plagued states in the country, with temperatures in Phoenix on track to become the first U.S. city to reach an average monthly temperature above 100°F, according to the National Weather Service.

After meeting with the mayors of Arizona’s capital city and San Antonio this week, the Biden administration outlined a series of steps it is taking to help Americans battle the soaring temperatures, which the president described as “the number one weather-related killer.”

Among several actions taken, the administration has directed the Labor Department to increase inspections at outdoor construction and agriculture sites in an effort to protect workers from the dangerous — and persistent — heat.

But local officials, and some lawmakers from most-affected states, argued Biden’s latest actions fall short of what is needed to address the problem.

“Local elected leaders are on the frontlines of responding to extreme heat, but they can’t do it alone,” Gallego said in a statement. “I will keep pushing to get this bill through Congress, but with so many Arizonans dying or falling ill we can’t waste any time.”

“That’s why we need FEMA to act now and declare a major disaster for heat,” Gallego added.

Heat is not listed under the Stafford Act, the federal law that governs how the government responds to natural disasters and whether it allocates additional funds to states and cities.

There is no precedent for FEMA to step in to respond to extreme heat events. A congressional aide who said they spoke with FEMA officials told NBC News that Congress must place extreme heat in the federal code.

Because in order to declare an extreme heat disaster without congressional intervention, the temperature would have to exceed local governments’ capabilities to manage — but there’s currently no official metric for that, the aide said.

In a statement to NBC News, a spokesperson for FEMA said: "Our agency has a well-established process for assessing if there is a need for supplemental federal disaster assistance — where those needs exceed the state, tribal or local capacity. There is nothing specific that precludes a declaration for an extreme heat incident."

The spokesperson added that the agency has "only received three historic requests for extreme heat declarations" — two in 1980 and one in 1995 — and that they were all "denied because they did not demonstrate that state and local capacity had been exceeded."

"However, if a circumstance did occur where an extreme heat incident exceeded state and local capacity, an emergency or major disaster declaration request submission could be considered," the spokesperson said.

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, in both chambers of Congress, have repeatedly urged FEMA to make the disaster declaration in recent years. But with this summer projected to be the hottest on record, proponents of the heat declaration are hoping relief will come soon.

“Enabling extreme heat events as eligible for disaster declarations would widen the amount of crucial federal resources available to cities as they continue to work towards saving lives, protecting infrastructure, and adapting to the impacts of a rapidly warming climate,” wrote Tom Cochran, CEO of the Conference of Mayors, which represents 1,400 cities nationwide, in his letter to the lawmakers.