Extreme heat is deadlier than hurricanes, but protections in Lafayette fall short

A worker with the U.S. Postal Service delivers mail in a residential neighborhood near Downtown Lafayette, while the area is under an excessive heat advisory on July 21, 2023. Staff photo by Alena Maschke.

“Half the time, I think I’m gonna pass out,” FedEx driver Cailyn Williams said from the driver’s seat of her delivery truck on a hot Thursday afternoon in Downtown Lafayette.

The 28-year-old recently started driving for the delivery service, just as temperatures across Louisiana started reaching dangerously high levels. “This heat ain’t nothing to play with,” Williams said.

Workers who spend most of their working hours outside, like Williams, are among those most at risk of heat-related illness, along with low-income renters and homeowners who can’t afford sufficient cooling devices in their homes, and those who don’t have a home to retreat to at all. 

Despite being the No. 1 cause of death among weather events, more deadly than hurricanes, or floods and tornadoes combined, institutional protections from extreme heat often fall short. 

Case in point: Despite an active heat advisory for the region, there had been no official cooling centers set up in Lafayette for this past weekend, where the heat index on Friday reached 108 – 112 degrees, considered excessive by the National Weather Service.

While temperatures have been in the upper 80s and mid 90s, high humidity has made the current weather much more dangerous.

Unlike warnings of other extreme weather events, such as floods and tropical storms, extreme heat rarely triggers a comparable response. According to Mike Steele, spokesperson for the Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness (GOSEHP), no parish has reached out to his office for assistance on heat-related emergency responses so far, despite weeks of dangerously high temperatures. 

One reason might be the insidious nature of extreme heat. Unlike storms and floods, there are few obvious signs of its impacts, no downed trees or power lines to clean up. 

“You just don’t have that with heat-related events,” Steele said. “If there isn’t a request from the locals, it doesn’t reach us. And with a lot of heat-related events, it doesn’t reach us.”

“In this weather pattern right now, where the humidity is on the high point, it makes it feel a lot hotter,” said Roger Erickson, chief meteorologist at the Service’s Lake Charles station, which covers parts of East Texas, southwest Louisiana and Acadiana. 

And this year has seen more dangerously hot days than usual. According to Erickson, his office normally logs roughly 15 days of extreme heat over the span of the summer. This year, with summer nowhere near over, they’ve already counted 30. 

Night temperatures, too, have been a concern. While night time usually offers the body a chance to recover from the heat of the day, night time temperatures have remained unusually high, a threat especially to those who spend all day working outdoors, one medical expert said.

While the impacts of extreme heat are less immediately visible, they are deadly. According to estimates by the National Weather Service, an average of 168 people die every year as a result of heat, a number that is likely to be far below the real number of heat-related deaths, according to medical experts. 

“It’s just not well tracked or documented,” said Dr. Alicia van Doren, a preventative medicine physician who has been advising and working with a new program launched by the Louisiana Department of Public Health this year to track cases of heat-related illness and deaths in real-time. The data, the department hopes, can be used to inform local responses to extreme heat events as they unfold.

The program’s first-use case was a storm June 16 that wiped out power for 200,000 residents in the Shreveport area, just as temperatures began to soar. Using the data collected from hospitals in the Shreveport-Bossier area, local officials were able to better target their response and focus on those most in need of assistance.

“Being able to really focus your attention on data, it helps you make better decisions,” said Regional Medical Director Dr. Martha Whyte. Knowing which hospitals saw the most admissions for heat-related illness allowed her department to concentrate efforts such as cooling centers and ice giveaways in the surrounding areas, making for a more targeted response. “Having that guidance is definitely a benefit,” Whyte said.

While the program is still in its infancy, and van Doren and her colleagues are still actively reaching out to hospitals, emergency responders and urgent care centers to increase the scope of data collection, it’s an important step in the right direction, said van Doren. In Acadiana, 22 hospitals currently contribute data to the program.

“If we’re tracking it, maybe that’s a way to hold employers or local government accountable,” she said. 

There currently are no federal regulations on heat exposure while working, for example, one of the most common causes of heat related illness. Three states, California, Minnesota and Washington, have enacted local protections for workers specifically targeting heat exposure. But there are also signs of regress. Texas, a state where heat indices consistently reach dangerous levels for long periods of time, recently nullified local rules entitling construction workers to water breaks.

“I don’t know where Louisiana will fall,” van Doren said. The new program, however, makes her hopeful. “I think it’s kind of unique for Louisiana to be forward thinking in that,” she said. “I hope that can be built up.”

And some municipalities in the state are taking a more active approach toward combating heat. New Orleans on Friday announced that it would be joining a coalition of cities planning to research and implement solutions such as porous roads, rain gardens and reflective roofs, in an effort to reduce temperatures. 

“Climate change is a lived reality for the city of New Orleans. From rapidly intensifying hurricanes and rainstorms to lengthier heat waves, the city continues to prepare for increased climate risks to our citizens and infrastructure,” Mayor LaToya Cantrell said in a press release. 

And while FEMA is most known — for better or worse — for its role in hurricane and flood response in Louisiana, the federal agency also offers some funding to help make communities more resilient in the face of rising temperatures. 

Through its Hazard Mitigation Assistance Grant programs, local agencies can receive funding for projects such as secondary power sources for cooling centers to ensure operations during a power outage, or research mapping heat islands and identifying areas most vulnerable to extreme heat.

In the meantime, nonprofits and charitable organizations are doing their best to help the most vulnerable residents stay safe. At St. Joseph Diner, homeless residents can find some respite from the heat for several hours. The Lafayette Council on Aging has been handing out fans to elderly residents. Community action agencies are helping low income residents access federal assistance to cover high electricity costs.

And while there are no official cooling shelters set up in Lafayette, residents can seek refuge from the heat at local recreation centers, a spokesperson for the city-parish government said. 

“If someone doesn’t have air conditioning, they really should find a place of business or somewhere they can cool down,” van Doren said. “A hospital lobby to sit in or a Walmart — anywhere, really.”