A post-Laura heat wave has no name

The extreme heat following Hurricane Laura could be as deadly as a tropical storm. But only one of those weather events has a name. Why?

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Tracy Miller, 60, carries an item through floodwater that is left after Hurricane Laura landed along the Texas-Louisiana border in Cameron, Louisiana on August 30, 2020. Source: Callaghan OHare for The Washington Post via Getty Images.

People in Southwest Louisiana are suffering in the wake of Hurricane Laura, the strongest storm to ever hit the state, and the fifth-strongest storm to ever hit the country.

Though not as catastrophic as expected, the Category 4 storm killed at least 16 people, and insured losses are estimated to be between $8 billion and $12 billion. That’s staggering considering Laura’s path avoided major population centers like New Orleans and Houston.

As the New York Times reported on Sunday, “much of the devastation has been concentrated in and around Lake Charles, a city of 78,000 heavily dependent on the oil and gas industry.” Small coastal towns—like Cameron, Louisiana, where Laura made direct landfall—were “nearly obliterated.

Screenshots of Cameron, Louisiana taken before and after Hurricane Laura show massive property destruction. Source: USA Today/Google Images.

These regions will likely be rebuilding for years. “We have a long road ahead of us,” the state’s Democratic Governor John Bel Edwards of Louisiana said on Sunday. The mayor of Lake Charles, Nic Hunter, warned residents who evacuated that they would likely face weeks without power or water if they returned.

“There have been many questions about shelter in Lake Charles,” Hunter wrote in a Facebook post on Saturday. “The blunt and honest answer is, there is no electricity in Lake Charles, there is little to no water in Lake Charles, there are no hotel rooms available in Lake Charles, and almost every sizable building in Lake Charles has been damaged severely.”

Living in a city with these conditions would be dangerous on its own, particularly for poor, elderly, or sick populations. But Southwest Louisiana residents have also had another dangerous condition to deal with since the storm passed: relentless extreme heat. Since Hurricane Laura hit, a relentless heat wave has been choking the region. That extreme and potentially deadly heat continues today, according to the National Weather Service.

A screenshot from the National Weather Service shows a Heat Advisory in effect for Southwest Louisiana on Monday. “The elevated heat index values will be particularly acute for areas still challenged by power outages,” the advisory reads.

It’s not hyberbole to call this deadly. More Americans die each year from the effects of heat and heat-related illness than any other form of severe weather, according to the National Weather Service. The heat index in Laura-plagued regions could reach up to 112 degrees Fahrenheit on Monday, the NWS’s advisory said. It added: “Hot temperatures and high humidity may cause heat illnesses, especially where power outages have occurred.”

To avoid heat stroke, the NWS advised people to limit outdoor work, and to take frequent breaks in “shaded or air conditioned environments” if work is unavoidable. But shaded and air conditioned environments may be hard to come by. More than 300,000 people remained without power in Louisiana on Monday morning, according to PowerOutage.Us. And just from a preliminary assessment of affected areas on Google Maps, the 100+ mile per hour winds appear to have knocked over thousands of trees.

Outdoor work might be unavoidable, too, as many attempt to recover from Hurricane Laura. Combined, these conditions are making a dangerous heat wave even more dangerous.

Residents of Southwest Louisiana will likely remember Hurricane Laura forever. Will we remember the heat wave that came after?

This is, unfortunately, what you think it is. A room full of heatwave victims in a mortuary in Karachi, Pakistan, following the historic heatwave of 2015 where more than 1,000 people were killed. Source: Qaisar Khan/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images.

It’s unlikely the heat wave affecting Southwest Louisiana right now will resemble, say, the historic 2015 heat wave in Pakistan which killed 1,000 people, or even the heat wave in India last year that killed 100. But the risk of death is certainly apparent. And it’s risks like this that get some experts thinking: Why do we name hurricanes, and not heat waves?

“Right now, heat is a silent killer. And if it’s silent, you can’t solve it,” said Kathy Baughman McLeod, who is leading a new international coalition to name and rank heat waves called the Extreme Heat Resilience Alliance. The Alliance’s basic theory is that extreme heat is a public health crisis, getting worse and more frequent due to climate change, and must be addressed immediately. And the first step toward addressing any crisis is to communicate that it is, in fact, a crisis.

We have to find ways to communicate the risks of extreme heat,” she said. “If you don’t name it, people don’t know it’s there.”

A graph shows that the U.S. has experiences more heat-related deaths in an average year than floods, tornadoes, cold weather, or hurricanes. Source: USA Today.

Here’s how the heat wave naming system would work. A weather forecast would predict an incoming heat event with, as McLeod puts it, “enough severity that it’s going to be a whopper.” Forecasters give it a name—perhaps Heat Wave Lucifer. Perhaps the severity of the heat wave decreases over time; so it’s a Category 3 for the first two days, then it drops to a Category 1.

What are the definitions of these categories? What is the naming system? Who knows! Those are all still being worked out. This thing is only three weeks old. But the purpose, McLeod says, is that “everyone is talking about it. It’s got a hash tag. You’re getting alerts on your phone. The media is getting onto Heat Wave Lucifer. Where is your grandmother? Do you have access to water? Are you adequately prepared?”

There are other potential uses for a heat wave naming system, too. “Maybe it triggers something inside the city, like a disaster designation, and then funding for extra emergency response can be released,” she said. “Maybe it could give people that work outside—like landscape workers, UPS drivers, farmers—an authority to say ‘I can’t work during a named heat wave, it’s not safe,’ just like they wouldn’t work during a declared hurricane.”

The concept of naming heat waves isn’t new, McLeod noted. but the Extreme Heat Resilience Alliance is. It was put together nearly a month ago by the Adrienne Arsht-Rockefeller Foundation Resilience Center, which has declared naming heat waves its “number one priority,” according to the Washington Post.

Right now, the alliance’s goal is mainly to start a conversation—and potentially push the idea for implementation in California. So far, it’s an idea that many climate and health experts have “generally reacted favorably to,” the Post noted. That’s in part because heat appears to be a much more significant threat to human health than previously believed.

While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, says only 600 Americans die each year from extreme heat, a recent study from Climate Central put the number closer to 12,000 deaths per year. The disparity in numbers comes from how hospitals characterize “cause of death.” They will normally say “kidney failure” or “dehydration,” not “extreme heat.”

At the same time, extreme heat events are increasing in frequency and severity all across the country because of the climate crisis. Without a significant reductions in emissions from fossil fuels, scientists now predict extreme heat could kill more people than all infectious diseases combined by the end of the century.

Some experts, however, are still skeptical of the idea to name heat waves like hurricanes. “Naming events does not convey anything about the nature of the specific risks or impacts nor does it help nuance understanding of how those vary by a range of population characteristics—much less convey anything about the science,” University of Alabama weather communications professor Susan Jasko told the Post.

But McLeod notes that naming heat waves like hurricanes isn’t supposed to be be-all, end-all solution—it can, and must, be part of a much larger and more aggressive strategy to address the public health threat of heat waves. “The naming is the gateway to all the other things that need to be scaled and invested in,” she said.

And while McLeod acknowledges the idea to name heat waves needs more study, she also acknowledges that the climate crisis won’t necessarily wait up for the scientific process.

“If there is a better way to communicate the risk of extreme heat, we’re open to that,” she said. “But we have to hurry. We don’t have two years to study. We have to hustle. People are dying.”

“I want to say it couldn’t be more dire,” she added. “But of course it could be. We keep emitting greenhouse gases, and Americans don’t think they’re vulnerable. Let me tell you—they are.” And not just the ones living in Southwest Louisiana, either.

Want to contribute to a relief fund for Hurricane Laura? The Community Foundation of Southwest Louisiana is raising money for local non-profits that will help people recover. You can donate at FoundationSWLA.org, with a direct link at foundationswla.org/hurricane-relief.

Correction: A previous version of this story misstated John Bel Edwards’s political party.

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