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Heat wave safety tips from the world's first chief heat officer

Wyatt Seymore pours the last drops of liquid from a water bottle into his mouth on June 17 as he takes a break from unloading a stiflingly hot trailer of fireworks outside Powder Monkey Fireworks ahead of the opening of the stand in Weldon Spring, Mo.
Jeff Roberson
/
AP
Wyatt Seymore pours the last drops of liquid from a water bottle into his mouth on June 17 as he takes a break from unloading a stiflingly hot trailer of fireworks outside Powder Monkey Fireworks ahead of the opening of the stand in Weldon Spring, Mo.

The East Coast, Midwest and other parts of the country are baking this week due to a major heat wave that's pushing temperatures to near triple-digit temps several major cities.

Temps in Washington, D.C., Indianapolis, Nashville are all expected to peak near 100 degrees this weekend.

While Miami is not among those impacted by the current heat dome, its tropical monsoon climate leads to intensely hot and humid summers. In order to tackle some of the challenges the heat can pose, Miami-Dade County appointed a chief heat officer three years ago.

Jane Gilbert is considered the world's first ever chief heat officer, as part of a partnership with the Adrienne Arsht-Rockefeller Foundation launched in 2021. We asked her how people in cities around the country can deal with the ongoing heat wave and how she's trying to cool Miami.

 Jane Gilbert is the chief heat officer for southeastern Florida's Miami-Dade County, a position that the Adrienne Arsht-Rockefeller Foundation Resilience Center says is the first of its kind in the world.
Courtesy Miami-Dade County Office of Resilience. /
Jane Gilbert is the chief heat officer for southeastern Florida's Miami-Dade County, a position that the Adrienne Arsht-Rockefeller Foundation Resilience Center says is the first of its kind in the world.

Why the risk of extreme heat has grown in cities

"We're getting hotter in cities not only because of climate change, but how we develop more asphalt, less green space, less trees, more waste heat from buildings and cars," Gilbert told NPR's Michel Martin.

"All of this contributes to our urban environments being up to 10 degrees hotter than the surrounding rural areas."

She pointed to the "very exposed" unhoused population and large numbers of construction workers as other challenges.

"We have people walking and waiting at bus stops. All of these are places where people are more exposed to heat and unfortunately with less tree canopy, particularly in our lower income areas," Gilbert added.

Taming a 'silent killer'

As part of her role, Gilbert seeks to better inform and prepare residents, help them stay cool at home affordably and cool down neighborhoods through environmental initiatives, and the use of greener building materials.

These efforts include tree planting and preservation, as well as urban design that incorporates cool pavements and building materials to reduce so-called "heat islands" in major urban zones. The Miami metropolitan area — which includes Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties — is among the top 10 largest in the United States.

In the three years she's been on the job, Gilbert said she's noticed growing public awareness about the dangers of extreme heat — a "silent killer," as she calls it — that can cause not just heat exhaustion or heat stroke but also cardiac arrest and heart attacks triggered by heat, strokes, pediatric asthma or birth complications.

"Heat stroke is just the tip of the iceberg of heat impacts on heat learning outcomes," she said.

How can people stay safe in the heat?

There are steps people can take individually to mitigate the effects of the heat, such as making sure to have access to water and "hydrate more than they think they need" every hour.

If someone is experiencing symptoms of dehydration — like feeling lightheaded or tired with a dry mouth, lips and tongue — Gilbert recommends cooling their body down as quickly as possible. For example, they could be placed in a room with chillier temperatures or have a fan placed near them with water evaporating through it. They should also get water as quickly as possible.

But if they are nauseous or unconscious, Gilbert warns they can't be given drinks and recommends calling emergency services.

For those participating in sports or otherwise exerting a lot of energy, Gilbert recommends taking breaks in the shade or another cool spot. They should also replenish every third or fourth drink with electrolytes.

"It's kind of like [high-intensity training]," she said. "You take a break and then you get back out there. Your performance is going to be better."

 Miami-Dade County Chief Heat Officer Jane Gilbert participates in a local tree planting project.
Courtesy Miami-Dade County Office of Resilience. /
Miami-Dade County Chief Heat Officer Jane Gilbert participates in a local tree planting project.

The broadcast version of this story was produced by Lilly Quiroz. The digital version was edited by Obed Manuel.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Olivia Hampton
[Copyright 2024 NPR]