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Heat waves and high energy costs are hitting some communities hard

Sweltering heat and humidity have hit large parts of the U.S. where many people are also facing high energy costs: "For low-income families, this is catastrophic."  
Children play at a water park as the temperature reaches 115 degrees on June 12, 2022, in Imperial, Calif.
Children play at a water park as the temperature reaches 115 degrees June 12 in Imperial, Calif.Sandy Huffaker / Getty Images

From Kansas to Michigan, some 10 million Americans were facing sweltering conditions Monday as high heat and humidity smothered the middle of the country.

Minneapolis was under an extreme heat warning with forecasters warning the mercury could hit a record 100 degrees this afternoon.

And that was just a warm-up for the potentially record-breaking temperatures forecast across the rest of the region for Tuesday and Wednesday, the National Weather Service said.

"Dangerous heat and potential record high temperatures are expected this week from the Upper Midwest and Great Lakes to the Southern U.S.," the agency warned.

Kansas City could be baking in 97 degree heat come Tuesday, forecasters warned. The mercury could hit a high of 94 degrees in Memphis and St. Louis. And the temperature could reach a sizzling 100 degrees in Chicago — again.

Last week, 100 degree temps were reported on back-to-back days at Midway Airport, located on the south side of Chicago, for the first time since 1934, the local NBC affiliate reported.

Torrid temperatures and high humidity has added an extra burden to the ongoing challenges many people — especially lower income Americans — already face from inflation and high energy costs.

In Macon, Georgia, where temperatures were expected to reach triple digits this week, Sgt. Melissa White, a corps administrator for the Salvation Army, said her facility has been packed with people looking for relief from the heat but who don't dare run their own air conditioners.

“With these gas prices, people can’t afford to run air conditioners even if they have them,” White said. “So it’s forcing a lot of folks who have never reached out for help to come into these cooling stations.”

Climate change, scientist say, is fueling more frequent and more intense heat waves in the U.S. and around the world. As temperatures climb, access to cooling resources can be a matter of life and death. 

A man lies on the grass as the temperature reaches 115 degrees on June 12, 2022, in Calexico, Calif.
A man lies on the grass as the temperature reaches 115 degrees June 12 in Calexico, Calif.Sandy Huffaker / Getty Images file

The Salvation Army of Macon is expanding its operations during the heat wave to serve as a cooling center for the public. The organization also runs a shelter where people can stay overnight, and White said she and her colleagues are already struggling to keep up with demand, especially with forecasts projecting high heat and humidity to linger for weeks.

“We have such a large influx that we’re looking at opening a second spot in our worship center,” she said. “Technically, we have a 122-bed system, but we also have cots and we just keep taking people in until we can’t get them in anymore.”

Cities across the country are taking similar steps to protect residents from heat-related illness and death. Local governments in Phoenix, Denver and Detroit announced plans last week to open cooling centers, distribute water and erect new structures to provide shade.

Heat is sometimes known as a “silent killer” because symptoms of heat-related illness can often go unnoticed until it’s too late. The body’s organs can become overtaxed and shut down if they lose the ability to regulate temperature.

Also, heat can also worsen symptoms from underlying conditions such as cardiac disease, diabetes or kidney problems.

Young children, the elderly, people experiencing homelessness, and individuals with pre-existing medical conditions, are among those at highest risk of heat-related illness and death when temperatures soar.

Yvette Moyler, who lives just north of Columbus, Ohio, said last week it was so hot her air conditioner couldn't keep up.

“In this weather, it’s hard to breathe,” said Moyler, 59, of Worthington, where the temperatures hit the upper 90s last Tuesday and the heat index soared above 110 degrees, the National Weather Service reported. 

Moyler is a breast cancer survivor and the high heat dries out her sinuses and aggravates other side effects from her radiation treatments and medications like hot flashes.

“If it’s too hot, I ache,” Moyler said. 

But at least Moyler had A/C.

Last week, severe storms in Ohio downed power lines and damaged infrastructure. Nearly a quarter of a million customers of the local utility, AEP Ohio, were without power Tuesday night, including many in the Columbus area, according to the company’s website. 

The outage, combined with the heat, left staffers at the Lifecare Alliance, a local nonprofit, scrambling to deliver fans, transport people to a facility with air conditioning and provide meals for those in need.

Chuck Gehring, president and CEO of the LifeCare Alliance, which has about 30,000 clients in central Ohio, said the organization’s volunteers called more than 1,500 clients Tuesday to check on their cooling and food needs. He said many people were being squeezed by the cost of cooling, which has only been exacerbated this year by inflation and high energy prices.  

“We have a lot of people who either do not have air conditioning in an old house or they can’t afford to turn it on,” Gehring said. “A lot of them won’t turn it on because they’re afraid if they can’t pay their bills they’ll get evicted.” 

Inflation and rising energy prices have a disproportionate impact. The U.S. Department of Energy says low-income families often spend about 8.6% of their budgets on energy — nearly three times what higher income families pay. 

The average price of residential electricity is projected to rise nearly 4% over last summer, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration’s summer energy outlook

“For middle class families it’s very tough — they’re getting hit with higher gasoline prices, higher home energy prices, higher next winter home heating costs,” said Mark Wolfe, executive director of the national energy assistance director’s association. “For low-income families, this is catastrophic.” 

In California, where temperatures can vary 20 or more degrees between coastal cities and inland communities, heat waves have become a public health crisis exacerbated by income inequities. 

A 2021 study by the University of California, Davis, found that low-income areas in the Southwest are 4 to 7 degrees hotter on average than wealthy neighborhoods in the same metro regions. 

U.S. Veteran Bennie Earsle, 72, takes a break on a sidewalk after buying a jug of water on June 10, 2022, in Houston.
U.S. veteran Bennie Earsle, 72, takes a break on a sidewalk after buying a jug of water June 10 in Houston.Brandon Bell / Getty Images

The greatest heat disparities were found in the Southern California cities of Riverside and San Bernardino, with Latino communities bearing the brunt of scorching temperatures. Latino neighborhoods are nearly 7 degrees hotter than non-Latino areas, according to the study. 

That disproportionate impact can mean upticks in emergency calls and hospital visits during heat waves.

“On any day with extreme heat, emergency rooms in Los Angeles see an additional 1,500 patients,” said Dr. David Eisenman, director of the Center for Public Health and Disasters at the University of California, Los Angeles. “We estimate that an additional 16 people die on a single day of heat in Los Angeles County.”

Black and Latino communities experience the worst health impacts during extreme heat events, he added, with excess deaths up to 18% when compared to white people in Los Angeles. For instance, neighborhoods in low-income areas like South Los Angeles send an additional 20 to 30 people to the emergency room on heat days compared to two additional people from wealthier neighborhoods just a few miles away, Eisenman said.

Those inequalities are expected to widen, as heat waves become more common and more severe as a result of climate change, placing additional strain on cooling resources for public health and safety.

“Cooling is still perceived more as a luxury,” Wolfe said. “It’s an antiquated view from 30 to 40 years ago.”