Phoenix is working on a first-of-its-kind heat readiness program that would help the city prepare for extreme heat the way other cities prepare for storms.
The program would build on existing efforts to address immediate needs, such as cooling centers for people who can't otherwise escape the heat, and long-term remedies, such as planting trees to provide shade and cool neighborhoods.
City officials cite the growing number of deaths attributed to heat in Maricopa County: a record 150 in 2016 and the likelihood of a higher number when 2017 deaths are finally counted.
"In Phoenix, Arizona, we wouldn't be doing our job if we weren't better preparing for these hotter conditions that are coming our way," Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton said. "It's what we owe our kids and grandkids to better prepare now."
Phoenix is a finalist in Bloomberg Philanthropies' 2018 Mayors Challenge, which has awarded the city up to $100,000 to refine its heat preparednessidea over the next six months.
First prize is $5 million to implement the idea. Four runner-up cities will receive $1 million. Winners will be announced in October.
Phoenix is competing with 35 other finalist cities and a wide range of ideas. Los Angeles, for example, is addressing homelessness. Miami and Miami Beach, Florida, are tackling the rise of sea level linked to climate change.
"That is obviously a huge issue for our world," Stanton said, "but so is what we're facing here in Phoenix and Arizona as a result of climate change. And that is extreme heat forest fires, drought."
Modeled after 'StormReady'
City officials concede Phoenix lacks a cohesive strategy to deal with the economic and health threats of extreme heat. The Bloomberg challenge is an opportunity to fix that.
Phoenix is calling the idea the HeatReady City program, adapting concepts from the federal StormReady program, which cities across the U.S. participate in.
"It'd be very similar to what you've seen in the Gulf area as they prepare for the horrific storms that they've faced," Stanton said.
Like the federal readiness program for storms, cities across the U.S. could participate. They would become "HeatReady" certified as they prepare for extreme heat, according to the proposal Phoenix officials submitted to the Bloomberg challenge.
Officials from Atlanta and Seattle, among others, have expressed interest in helping to develop such a certification, said Karen Peters, a Phoenix deputy city manager.
The effects of extreme heat are growing deadly. An Arizona Republic investigation last year compiled records of at least 150 heat-related deaths in Maricopa County in 2016. If these deaths were to happened all at once, it would be deemed a natural disaster, city officials wrote in the proposal they submitted.
The Republic investigation also found that an expanding urban heat island and rising global temperatures have increased triple-digit days in Phoenix by six weeks over the last century.
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Extreme heat threatens the city's "economic viability," according to the HeatReady City proposal.
Heat illnesses harm economic productivity, but it's also important to maintain the perception that Phoenix offers a year-round high quality of life, Peters said
Devastating images from floods, fires and storms attract national media attention, but urban heat goes unnoticed as an "invisible, slow-moving" crisis, city officials wrote in the proposal, adding that residents often suggest the city should have already taken action to address extreme heat.
Extreme heat discriminates
While all Phoenix residents know heat, not everyone experiences it the same. Some are more vulnerable to it. And those are the residents city officials are most concerned about.
Some residents live in hotter neighborhoods. Sensors placed by the Republic last fall in separate South Phoenix and Encanto neighborhoods measured higher temperatures in South Phoenix, where shade was scant and more heat-absorbing concrete and asphalt surrounded the neighborhood.
For other residents, heat may inflame preexisting health conditions. They could be elderly, pregnant or people taking prescribed medication that deregulates their body temperature.
Some lack the ability to adapt to heat. Low-income residents may go without air conditioning if it breaks or if it runs their electricity bill too high to afford.
"Nobody should lose their air conditioning during extreme heat conditions," said Stanton. "And that's something that we, coming together as public and private sector partners, we can figure that one out."
READ MORE: Arizona's heat is killing people
Finding new solutions
The HeatReady City program would build on efforts the city has already taken to address climate change and the urban heat island effect.
Solutions to the city's extreme heat may include more shade along walkways to public transportation and providing additional help to the homeless during extreme heat, Stanton said.
The city makes cooling centers available to members of the public who need water and a hiatus from the heat, but the centers are not open all the time.
Phoenix also aims to increase shade by increasing the city's tree canopy to 25 percent, but the city can't do it alone and will need the public to plant trees on private land.
After pleas from residents for more shade, the city's parks department planted more trees in the Sherman Parkway neighborhood, one of the areas used in the Republic's heat sensor experiment.
Still, power lines above the park restricted the department from planting "big shade tree species," Richard Adkins, the city’s forestry supervisor, said last fall.
"We don't have all the answers," Stanton said. "That's what this program is all about."
During the testing phase over the next six months, officials will ask community members what they'd like to see the program do, said Peters, the deputy city manager.
'We're going to do it anyway'
Emma Cordova suggested providing homes with added insulation. She owns the home in South Phoenix where the Republic placed sensors.
Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport installed double-pane windows, a thick door and foam insulation in her home as part of an effort to reduce noise from planes overhead, but it also keeps Cordova's house cooler.
Additionally, she would like the city to replace the gravel in the neighborhood park with grass, which would absorb less heat.
While she wishes the HeatReady City program success, "the city takes forever to do anything," Cordova said.
Stanton will step down as Phoenix mayor later this year to run for Congress, but city staff suggested the program would sustain political support, referencing a sense of urgency among local politicians, businesses and residents to tackle extreme heat.
If the city wins additional money for the program, it would help them create it faster, Peters said. But if they don't win, it won't kill the HeatReady City idea.
"It's just so important that we're going to do it anyway," Peters said, "in one form or another."