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Tempe creates an emergency response center to be a refuge in a climate disaster


It was about a year ago when a series of severe winter storms hit Texas. By the time they'd passed, millions of people were without power. Heat, food and water - they were all in short supply. The electrical grid failed. Hundreds died. To the West, in an Arizona suburb near Phoenix, officials are anticipating a similar crisis from a prolonged heat wave, and they're working to prepare. Anthony Wallace at member station KJZZ has the story.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Good morning, everyone. Just to tell you real quick, we've got a raffle for two...

ANTHONY WALLACE, BYLINE: On a cool Saturday morning in Tempe, a suburb of Phoenix, people cluster in a parking lot surrounded by strip malls. At information booths and under shade canopies, they're talking about what they'd like to see in the vacant building at the center of the event.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Bill assistance, utility assistance and help for homeless and mentally ill - just a place where people can go for help.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Information on where to get food pantry - is that going to be available here?

WALLACE: Today's weather is nice, but many here agree that when it gets hot, the neighborhood needs a place people can go to cool down. Phoenix regularly sees a hundred days each year of triple-digit temperatures.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: There's no shade around here. Look at these trees. That's not a shading tree. That's not a shading tree.

WALLACE: The city of Tempe's director of sustainability is Braden Kay.

BRADEN KAY: So we have about a 1,600-square-foot building. We're looking at a sign here - at Cafe Istanbul. It used to be a Middle Eastern cafe.

WALLACE: Kay and his colleagues plan to transform the cafe into the city's first resilience hub, a year-round community center that can act as a refuge in a climate disaster. He says the concept is catching on across the country.

KAY: There are several cities, like Austin and Baltimore and Minneapolis, that we've had consult with us, and now that we've seen crises like the one in Texas and in the Pacific Northwest, there's really an understanding of this heightened need for these emergency response centers in every neighborhood in the country.

WALLACE: The city is investing $2.3 million in mostly federal funds in the center, part of it COVID-19 relief money. Today, Kay and his colleagues are trying to learn how the center can best offer services like housing and job assistance, but Kay hopes they will also learn...

KAY: What's going to make you trust this building in order to come here at 9 o'clock at night if it's 112 degrees and your air conditioning has gone out?

MELISSA GUARDARO: I think anybody who works in this extreme heat space is not worried that it's going to happen so much as it's going to happen; it's just a matter of when.

WALLACE: Melissa Guardaro is a heat researcher at Arizona State University. And some experts warn of a so-called Hurricane Katrina of extreme heat in Phoenix. Imagine - an historic heat wave pushes temperatures to 110 degrees or more for five days straight, straining the power grid and causing outages all over town. No air conditioning.

GUARDARO: We like to call that a cascading disaster. And it's not just the heat and the power, but your water will go out, too.

WALLACE: One study estimated that such a catastrophic event in Phoenix could leave 1.6 million people injured or dead. Tempe's sustainability director Braden Kay says they aim to open the Tempe resilience hub this May and, eventually, add backup power so its air conditioning can continue running if the grid fails.

KAY: Our idea is that, eventually, you should be able to be in a five- to 10-minute walk of a resilience hub, no matter where you are. But we got to start somewhere.

WALLACE: An argument for resilience hubs is that having a place to go and people you trust nearby can be the key to survival in a disaster. Research from the 1995 Chicago heat wave shows more socially isolated communities suffered higher death rates than those with greater social connection. Dominique Parks, who's 58, relies on power for more than just air conditioning.

DOMINIQUE PARKS: It would be a very good plus. I would be in trouble 'cause I have to have oxygen. So that would even be double trouble for me if I - if my electricity went out.

WALLACE: This project in Tempe is an attempt to flip the script on disaster relief and aid in general, which can be top-down, very costly, chaotic and reactive, not preventive and community-based. The idea is to better understand what people really need. The city is looking toward scouting locations for future resilience hubs. It anticipates adding one to two hubs a year, creating more places more people can go to come together, where the AC can always run.

For NPR News, I'm Anthony Wallace in Phoenix. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Anthony Wallace