The 2021 heat wave 'was a wake-up call.' But Seattle's still unprepared for high temps
Preparing for extreme heat takes time, city and county officials say.
Last June’s triple-digit heat wave was the deadliest weather event in King County’s history. More than 30 people died here, and a KUOW analysis indicates that, statewide, about 400 people died.
Now, Seattle is bracing for another stretch of record-breaking temperatures, with highs hovering around 90. On the heels of last summer’s heat wave, local officials are implementing extra precautions to keep people safe from the heat but broader solutions are slow to roll out.
“Last year’s extreme weather was a wake-up call,” King County Councilmember Girmay Zahilay said. Preparing for extreme heat “is a growing priority because every year our region is just going to get hotter and hotter.”
“I'm really afraid of how our extreme weather events will impact our most vulnerable populations, especially seniors,” he added. “We know that seniors are more at risk for suffering from heat exhaustion, heart attacks, all kinds of health issues because of extreme weather.”
But, Zahilay said, preparing for extreme weather takes time, and money. He’s working on increasing the number and the accessibility of cooling centers in King County, such as having them open later, and making it easier to find out what’s available.
He’s also trying to get funding for hotel vouchers so that people experiencing homelessness have a safe, private place to be during heat waves and wildfire smoke events. Finally, he says the county needs regulations that would require group homes for seniors to have air conditioning. But he doesn’t expect all of these measures to be in place for a couple of years.
Meanwhile, Seattle’s Office of Emergency Management also spent the last year trying to figure out how to better prepare for extreme heat. Agency spokesperson Kate Hutton said they organized focus groups with vulnerable communities, including elderly people and families with young children.
“What people really want is to continue to live their lives and just not be so hot,” Hutton said. “So rather than asking them to change up their daily routine, we can bring the cooling into their existing routine. And that's kind of more of our strategy going forward.”
So, for example, the city got air-conditioning units for several senior centers — five senior centers (Central Area, Greenwood, Pike Market, West Seattle and Southeast Seattle) are now open as cooling centers.
It’s a struggle for the Puget Sound region to get ready for heat waves, because about two thirds of homes here don’t have air conditioning. Architects designed homes that would keep heat in during the region’s cold, damp winters, instead of homes that would keep heat out during the increasingly hot summers.
“We’d love to provide much more assistance to people in-home,” Hutton said. “The ideal for anybody is not to go to a cooling center. It’s to have a home that’s safe and cool for them.”
Hutton said it would be better to have programs that gave vulnerable people fans, air conditioners, and heat pumps for their homes, but there isn’t enough funding.
This week, Seattle will have four community centers and 18 libraries available as cooling centers, and the county will have additional locations. Various beaches, wading pools, and spray parks will also be open.
Hutton said the city will also be distributing water and ice to unhoused people.
One of the big challenges this week is that it won’t cool down much overnight, which limits people’s ability to recover, and to cool down their non-air-conditioned homes.
But the city hasn’t yet decided if they’re going to have any public options for overnight cooling.
“We will monitor the situation,” Hutton said. Opening overnight shelters is a “game-day decision” that’s made “as the heatwave progresses.” She said the city does have cots and blankets on-hand to stock overnight shelters, if those get opened.
To keep a house cool without air conditioning, experts advise closing blinds during the day, opening windows overnight, limiting cooking or cooking outdoors, and using fans.
Hutton also recommends checking in with friends, family members and neighbors to make sure they’re doing okay and have what they need. She says the risk of heat stroke and other heat-related illnesses is higher for children under four and also for anyone older than 40 — and that risk increases with age.