Report: Spokane ‘unprepared’ to take on a serious extreme heat event

SPOKANE, Wash – As the Inland Northwest prepares for several days of triple-digit temperatures, a public policy paper analyzing last year’s deadly heat wave says Spokane is ill-equipped to handle a sustained extreme heat event.

The National Weather Service has issued an Excessive Heat Warning from the Cascade Mountains through the Idaho panhandle.

They’re forecasting temperatures from the upper 90s into the lower 100s from Tuesday through Friday.

The City of Spokane is directing people who need to stay cool to local libraries and pools, but stopped short of opening any additional resources.

That’s something a public policy analysis points to as a “minimally effective” response in a major heat event.

Analyzing the 2021 Heat Wave

The heat wave in June 2021 kept the Pacific Northwest in temperatures of 100 degrees or more for 13 days.

In that time, Spokane recorded its hottest day ever at 109 degrees.

One hundred people died in the region, including 21 in Spokane County.

A student from the Frank Batten School of Leadership at Public Policy and the University of Virginia analyzed the heat wave and Spokane’s response to it.

In his paper, Owen Hart writes “The 2021 heat wave demonstrated that without the necessary resources and preparedness, both the city government and the Spokane community are currently unprepared to take on a serious extreme heat event.”

Hart goes on to write about what happened and what needs to be done as the climate continues to warm and more of these extreme heat events are possible.

“What we’re not used to is extended periods of over 100, 105-degree heat,” Karli Honebein, Program Coordinator for the Center for Climate, Society and Change at Gonzaga University said.

Protecting the Vulnerable

Of those who died from heat-related illnesses statewide in the summer of 2021, 67 percent of them were 65 and older.

Those living in poverty and without air conditioning also faced the risk of dying during a heatwave.

Add in the smoke that often fills the air for weeks at a time during wildfire season and the risk increases even more.

“Many households in Spokane often do not have access to air conditioning and leave windows open in their homes to cope with the heat,” Hart wrote. “This may contribute to negative health outcomes for low-income residents, particularly during periods of poor air quality.”

The report cites cooling centers as an option for those who need to seek relief from the heat, which Spokane added to the city code after the heat wave in 2021.

The code states that the city will activate cooling centers when the National Weather Service predicts temperatures of 95 or higher for two or more consecutive days.

But Hart’s report says the current system of cooling shelters is inadequate.

“While Spokane has established cooling centers during heat waves this past summer, these programs have faced criticism from community members for the hastiness of the plan’s development, a lack of communication with residents, and an inadequate transportation network to allow residents most vulnerable to heat stress to access cooling centers,” he writes.

“Even when cooling centers are located in close proximity to Heat Vulnerable Populations, as the Looff Carrousel facility is to downtown populations, the program’s focus on the homeless and the limited public perception of the risk posed by heat waves results in underutilization and a general failure to target benefits in heat vulnerable communities.”

In other words, cooling centers need to be better spread out into other areas of the community and there needs to be better transportation to those facilities.

“I think part of the problem with last year’s cooling centers is that people just weren’t aware,” Honebein said. “You know, people were hot, but they just didn’t know where to go”

The report also suggests the city needs an alert plan called a “Heat Early Warning System” to send alerts to mobile devices and computers so that people can better understand the risk.

Other recommendations

Hart makes other recommendations for the City of Spokane to be better prepared to handle the increased likelihood of more extreme heat events.

One suggestion is an air conditioning voucher system, covering the cost of purchasing window air conditioning units to people who are most vulnerable to heat stress. A pilot program would cost an estimated $825,768, but have a high impact.

The report also suggests a Cool Streets Pilot Program. It would follow a model in place in Los Angeles, which applied cool pavement in certain neighborhoods.

“The program would reduce heat-related morbidity by decreasing average ambient street-level temperatures experienced by pedestrians and residents significantly,” he writes.

The study suggests the program would be rolled out in Whitman, Hillyard, Bemiss or West Central. That project, though, is described as minimally effective at a cost of more than $1 million.

To read the whole report and recommendations in this study, you can find it at this link.

“If we can start to put these things in place, public plans, public signage and advance warning — a week ahead of a heat event, I think the community will show up because there are people who need it,” Honebein said. “Extreme heat is a real health hazard.”

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