Heat parches central U.S.

BY SUSAN KIM | North Texas | August 29, 2000


Agencies are responding to both heat-related health needs and the

economic burden the heat has caused for rural communities.

State agriculture officials estimate that agricultural and livestock producers have lost nearly $600 million

dollars this year due to the dry conditions. Conditions, reminiscent of the 1930s Dust Bowl era, are baking

crops and endangering the lives of elderly people and others vulnerable to heat.

Local churches and agencies are trying to prevent heat-related death and illnesses by offering people a cool

respite.

The heat and drought are having an economic effect as well as a health effect, said the Rev. Bruce

Buchanan, associate pastor at the First Presbyterian Church in Dallas. "Farmers who employ laborers have

no crops and so they have no work to offer," he said. The "Stew Pot," a church-run food program, has seen

its lunchtime clientele increase by more than 50 people a day over the past few days, he added.

The church, in what its has deemed a "heat abatement plan," also periodically offers Gatorade distribution,

a snow-cone machine, and "mist line" in which cold water is misted over people who walk past.

Another Texas-based program, Meals and Wheels and More in Austin, has started a campaign to offer air

conditioners to elderly people. "We have a lot of clients on a fixed income who don't have air conditioners,"

said Alison Unger, public relations manager. "We got an anonymous donation designated for the purpose

of providing air conditioners for people who need them."

The program has distributed some 25 air conditioners so far and plans to distribute more. It also sets aside

funds to help clients pay for their increased electric bills.

"You don't realize how hot it is until you have to sit there in it," she added. "Fans are inadequate. In fact,

they can be dangerous."

Unger is referring to the "convection oven" phenomenon that happens when someone turns on a fan and

seals a room when temperatures are already high. Instead of cooling the room, the fan action makes the

temperature dangerously high. "One of our clients said she felt like we saved her life," said Unger.

The last severe heat wave and drought to strike Texas was in 1998, said David Vaughan, spokesperson for

the Texas Department of Health's emergency preparedness division. "In that year, a lot of agencies were

bombarded with questions about what people should do and how they could recognize heat-related

illness," he said. "We realized we needed to produce some effective and versatile information."

The health department distributed bilingual flyers to churches and other community organizations with

tips on coping with the heat. "People don't of heat as being deadly, but it is, just as much as a hurricane or

tornado," said Vaughan. "People are unprepared."

Some medications can make people less aware of how hot they're feeling, he added. People using drugs

and alcohol also make themselves more susceptible to heat-related illness. "It's dangerous everywhere in

Texas right now," he said.

If the heat wave is lasting the longest in Texas, it's the highest in Kansas, which has sported the hottest

temperatures in the U.S. on Monday and Tuesday. Agencies are setting up cooling sites and checking on

vulnerable people, said Dante Gliniecki, statewide volunteer coordinator for Missouri State Emergency

Management. "This is something that's pretty amazing and it has a lot of people concerned," he said.

The city of Lawrence, KS had the distinction of being the hottest point within the hottest state in the U.S. on

Monday. But local officials report that they're prepared to deal with heat. They created a Heat Task Force

three years ago, along with a heat plan. "We had a lot of deaths three years ago," said Amy Griggs,

spokesperson for the American Red Cross. "Now we know each other's resources."

The task force includes faith-based organizations, community programs, and emergency management

officials. That group and its heat plan caught the eye of officials in Texas, who are planning to replicate it,

Griggs said.

Though a heat advisory has been in place in Kansas most of the summer, a heat emergency has yet to be

declared. When the heat index meets or exceeds 95 degrees at 11 a.m., a heat advisory is declared. A heat

warning is issued if the heat index meets or exceeds 105 degrees by 11 a.m. If a heat warning is issued in

Kansas City, the Salvation Army opens turns its nighttime shelters for the homeless into daytime cooling

shelters for the general public. Plus, libraries advertise themselves as cooling shelters, and bus fares are

decreased to encourage people to travel to cooler public locations.

A heat emergency is declared if the heat index meets or exceeds 105 degrees for three days in a row, and if

nighttime temperatures don't drop below 85 degrees. So far, nighttime temperatures -- even in Kansas --

are low enough to avert an emergency declaration.


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