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White House to unveil a system for tracking heat-related illnesses nationwide

President Joe Biden is under increasing pressure from lawmakers and state and local officials to do more to address an extreme heat crisis that has defined the summer of 2023.
HAYS COUNTY, TEXAS - AUGUST 08: Members of the Hays County Emergency Service Districts and the Kyle and Buda Fire Departments rest together while combatting a wildfire during an excessive heat warning on August 08, 2023 in Hays County, Texas. The city of Austin and its neighboring counties continue to grapple with a prolonged heat wave, with excessive heat advisories being issued across the state.
Hays County emergency service workers and members of the Kyle and Buda fire departments rest Tuesday as they combat a wildfire during an excessive heat warning in Hays County, Texas.Brandon Bell / Getty Images

WASHINGTON — The Biden administration plans to announce on Wednesday a new federal system to track heat-related illness nationwide and is considering additional measures amid pressure to do more to help Americans deal with crippling summer heat, according to White House officials.

The new national dashboard, which will be overseen by the Health and Human Services Department, maps emergency services responding to heat-related illness calls across the country, officials said. The “EMS HeatTracker” is intended to help ensure sufficient medical aid gets to Americans who need it most during severe heat, officials said.

“Heat is no longer a silent killer. From coast-to-coast, communities are battling to keep people cool, safe and alive due to the growing impacts of the climate crisis,” Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra said in a statement. “President Biden is committed to providing communities with the resources they need to stay safe.”

Federal data shows that millions have experienced unprecedented stretches of record-breaking temperatures, with little respite, making heat waves the largest weather-related killer nationwide.

Biden is under increasing pressure from lawmakers, local and state elected officials and Americans across the country to do more to address an extreme heat crisis that has defined the summer of 2023. The issue has elicited calls from some of the president’s key supporters as he campaigns for reelection — namely climate activists and elected Democrats — to take stronger action, such as formally declaring a climate “emergency.”

While the president hasn’t formally declared a climate emergency, he argued in a recent interview that his administration has “in practice.” “We already done that. Nationally, we’ve conserved more land. We’ve moved into rejoining the Paris Climate Accord. We passed a $360 billion climate control facility,” he said.

White House officials said discussions about possible additional measures are ongoing. For now, they hope Wednesday’s announcement will be welcomed, while acknowledging some limitations the government has when it comes to heat.

Officials said the “EMS HeatTracker” will break down patient characteristics by age, race, gender and urbanicity so local officials can better understand which populations are most at-risk for heat-related illness or death.

More people die from extreme heat than floods, hurricanes and tornadoes combined, according to National Weather Service figures cited by Biden this week. But the Federal Emergency Management Agency is restricted in what it can do to allocate critical resources for heat crises in the way it can for other deadly disasters.

Lawmakers like Arizona Rep. Ruben Gallego, who introduced the “Extreme Heat Emergency Act” in June, are calling on the Biden administration to do more, particularly to address recent life-threatening temperatures in Phoenix, which saw 31 straight days of 110-degree highs.

Gallego told MSNBC on Tuesday that he personally appealed to Biden on the tarmac after Air Force One touched down in Arizona this week.

“It’s only going to get worse. FEMA has not been very responsive to this growing problem. We Arizonans pay taxes to the federal government and we should be able to receive some of those services back because it is severely taxing a lot of our municipalities and counties trying to deal with this extreme heat,” Gallego said. “We need them to understand that this is a very severe situation.”

For many, the unrelenting heat in places like Phoenix has led residents to alter the way they do basic, everyday tasks.

Valerie Harris, who chairs a local Democratic Party organization, said that she wakes up before dawn just to walk her family’s two 10-pound dogs so they don’t suffer in the heat.

“I’ve lived here more than 50 years. It’s literally getting hotter and hotter,” Harris said. One of her dogs, a chihuahua, “has no hair and it’s too hot for him. The pavement gets so hot. We get up literally before the sun comes up so that we can walk him around the block.”

Marilyn Behrens, secretary of the group, said: “The overnight lows are so warm. When it doesn’t get below 90 degrees at night, it exhausts you in a different way.”

Arizona officials have pointed to the fact that the nighttime is considered just as dangerous as the daytime in some instances because high temperatures aren’t coming down enough and many people can’t afford the proper air conditioning to contend with such overwhelming warmth.

Biden addressed the issue in part on Tuesday in Red Butte, Arizona, where he touted the billions of dollars dedicated to combating climate change in the Inflation Reduction Act that he signed into law a year ago this month.

“None of this need be inevitable,” Biden said, calling the Inflation Reduction Act “the biggest investment of climate conservation and environmental justice ever, anywhere in the history of the world.”

But many Americans still struggle to see the impacts of the legislation in their day-to-day lives, according to recent online polling.

A Washington Post-University of Maryland poll conducted online last month found that 71% of respondents said they have heard “little” or “nothing at all” about the climate package. And most respondents — 57% — disapproved of how Biden has handled climate change overall.

Last month, the U.S. Conference of Mayors and the National League of Cities urged Congress to act quickly in a series of letters. 

“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.

Typically, when a major winter storm is looming, states and municipalities can ask the federal government for things like snow plows or heating centers. That’s not the case with oppressive heat.

The White House has taken action to help Americans battle blazing temperatures but states like California, Arizona and Nevada say they would like to see even more cooling centers and water stations for those who are experiencing homelessness.

One of the challenges, even if FEMA could declare a disaster for heat, would be deciding how to deploy teams to a weather event that could span dozens of states at a time and could go on for unpredictable amount of time, whereas other natural disasters are usually more limited in location and duration.

Another issue is just how FEMA would delegate resources, since it currently offers individual and public assistance for damage from things like tornadoes and hurricanes, but heat affects people more than it does infrastructure.

In its existence, FEMA has only received three requests for extreme heat declarations (two in 1980 and one in 1995), and all were denied because “they did not demonstrate that state and local capacity had been exceeded,” an agency spokesperson said. 

“The most effective way to save lives from extreme heat incidents will be through an increased focus on preparedness and resilience,” the spokesperson told NBC News. “Key actions include improved messaging and public education, modifying structures and landscapes to reduce urban heat impacts, and addressing economic issues or other community challenges that result in lack of access to air conditioning.”

Some cities have appointed chief heat officers to help manage the blistering temperatures. White House officials said the president fully supports such moves, encouraging states to do everything they can on their own.