As adverse weather events such as heavy rainfall, flash floods and heat waves become more severe and frequent, checking the weather forecast means much more than knowing whether you need an umbrella: extreme weather is inextricably linked to our safety and well-being.
Although Western Pennsylvania is not typically vulnerable to some of the hazards associated with climate change, such as hurricanes and wildfires, National Weather Service Director Ken Graham identified heavy precipitation and heat waves as the most important problems for the region. Of course, there are other weather-related factors that can affect health, such as thermal inversions that trap polluted air near the ground.
Graham, who was in Pittsburgh the week of Aug. 22 for the National Weather Service’s annual conference, previously served as director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association’s Hurricane Center, leading the charge when the organization runs out of hurricane names in 2020 and 2021. He works for the Weather Service 28 years and became its director in June.
Although the Pittsburgh area is far enough inland to avoid the direct brunt of hurricanes, it is sometimes flooded with rain from the tail end of these storms on the East Coast. One devastating flash flood incident occurred in 2011, when four Pittsburgh residents were killed by rushing water. In an effort to prevent a repeat, the city installed floodgates on Washington Boulevard near Negley Run Boulevard, north of Larimer. Sensors on the road near the locks were supposed to detect excess water and lower the lock arms to block traffic, but they didn’t always work as they should.
In August 2016, a gate failed, trapping several people in a car. They failed again in June 2018. Former Public Safety Director Wendell Hischirch called the failure the final straw and said he’s been kept up at night worrying about the gate arms not lowering properly during heavy rain. Hisirh called for the system to be modernized to implement more consistent technology.
Since a successful test in March 2021 and a successful deployment a year later in May 2022, when the floodgates lowered and prevented vehicles from driving on the flooded road, the floodgates appear to be working properly.
Pittsburgh Emergency Management Coordinator Daryl Jones said he has focused on the new gateway technology since being appointed to the position in January. The city’s Office of Emergency Management and Homeland Security is also working on developing grants to mitigate landslides in the city as a result of heavy rainfall.
Both Jones and Graham said risk awareness is an important component to staying safe during inclement weather such as storms and floods. If, say, you live near a river or in an area prone to flooding, it may be a good idea to elevate furniture and appliances in your home to protect them from water damage. Some residents may also be required to purchase flood insurance depending on where they live.
Dan Palk is particularly concerned about the risk of flooding for people living in urban tent cities, which often sit on riverbanks. Palka is the administrative director of ROOTS (Reaching Out to the Streets), an organization within AHN’s Center for Inclusive Health. ROOTS is also known as the Urban Health & Street Medicine program and was created with funding from the City of Pittsburgh.
He said the flood could destroy the property of those living along the river and make their homes unsafe. “One time I had to wake someone up at Mon Wharf because their tent was literally being washed away and they were half under water,” Palka recalls.
The main goal of ROOTS is to make sure that when people are forced to live outside, exposed to the elements, they are alive and safe. The team handed out hand warmers and socks in the winter and gallons of water in the heat. They have a regular location on Smithfield Street in downtown Pittsburgh and hope to open more locations soon. At the Smithfield Clinic, AHN staff have trained professionals to assist in community outreach and connect visitors to health resources and social service. Visitors can also stop in to use their bathrooms, stock up on essentials, or escape the heat.
Graham called heat an “underrated killer” and urged people to take it seriously. The number of extreme heat events in Allegheny County has been on the rise since the Health Department began collecting data in 2013, with a record 29 extreme heat events in 2018.
Heat waves disproportionately affect the elderly, low-income people and homeless people, who are most likely to live in so-called urban heat islands: areas of the city with less green space and more heat-trapping asphalt and concrete. These heat islands tend to get hotter than areas with more greenery and shade, and take longer to cool down. Many people living on urban heat islands may not have air conditioning, further increasing the risk of heat exhaustion or heat stroke.
In 2020, ROOTS installed large plastic tanks called water buffalos as well as gallon jugs for campers. Their original goal was to improve sanitation during the pandemic by installing these water tanks as well as handwashing stations and portable toilets.
But Palka said many people thanked him for providing drinking water. “I realized why didn’t we have this before? This is a human right,” he said. In the past, some homeless people filled Big Gulp cups with ice and waited for the ice to melt as a source of drinking water, so a more established and reliable water supply became desirable during the heat wave.
Heat-related death does not always occur immediately. Graham warned that emergencies could happen days or weeks after the heat because the heat is cumulative. In addition, due to global warmingthe night temperature does not drop as much as before, which means that the body cannot rest and recover from hot days.
Graham suggested wearing light clothing, staying hydrated and going to a cooling center during hot weather to stay safe. Jones said almost all of the recreation and senior centers in Pittsburgh could become cooling centers heat waves. When temperatures soared above 90 degrees Fahrenheit in July, the city set up cooling centers at the Healthy Active Living Community Centers in Brighton Heights, Greenfield, Homewood, Sheraden and South Side Market House.
Many weather-related deaths are not due to the storms themselves at all. In 2017, Category 4 Hurricane Irma hit Florida, destroying homes, downing trees and power lines. Although the storm caused confusion in many communities, most of the deaths were not from the hurricane itself – more deaths were, in fact, from carbon monoxide poisoning.
A total of 16 people died from carbon monoxide poisoning from the generators they installed in their homes. Having a generator in your home, garage, or even outside near your home can cause carbon monoxide to reach dangerous levels.
Some of the accident-related deaths have also been linked to electrocution and improper use of equipment such as chainsaws. Graham said if it’s your first time using such equipment during or after a weather event, it may be best to wait until an expert can safely handle the situation.
“Extreme heat and cold make any chronic health condition worse,” Palka said. In the case of Hurricane Irma, most of the deaths were the result of pre-existing conditions that were made worse by the storm, such as stress or the inability to get medical care.
“The amount of social capital you have in your community generally measures your ability to withstand adversity,” Palka said. And more extreme weather events in Western Pennsylvania will affect everyone, not just certain groups.
As the days turn colder, roads can become icy and snow can impede normal traffic. It is important not to take risks and be prepared for possible emergency situations. But Graham said one of the most important ways citizens can protect themselves and help spread the right information is to recognize that climate change is real and here to stay.
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Citation: Thunderstorms intensify. What does this mean for our health? (2022, September 5) Retrieved September 5, 2022, from https://phys.org/news/2022-09-storms-worse-health.html
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