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Heat wave lessons learned in Pacific Northwest

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The Pacific Northwest is feeling its first heat wave of the year. It comes just over a year after the region endured its most extreme heat ever. Hundreds of people died. Since that wake-up call, the region has been trying to prepare itself for a hotter future. KUOW's John Ryan reports.

JOHN RYAN, BYLINE: Seattleites are hoping this time around isn't as bad as the last time, when the 911 calls poured in.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: 911 - what are you reporting?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Hi. I just drove past the Kenmore Park & Ride, and there was a person laying on the ground. It's 102, and they had a...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Incapacitated individual that's kind of passed out, sleeping...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: We've been extremely busy everywhere today 'cause of the weather, so it could be quite a while before we get out there.

RYAN: More people in the Seattle area made medical calls to 911 than ever before. Heat-related visits to emergency rooms shot up 70-fold.

STEVE MITCHELL: They saw a career's worth of heat-related severe illness and, sadly, people dying within 8 hours.

RYAN: Emergency physician Steve Mitchell runs the ER at Seattle's Harborview Hospital. He says last summer's extreme heat pushed hospitals to their limits. One nearly ran out of ventilators. Another cooled heat stroke patients in body bags filled with ice. Then, it nearly ran out of ice. Since then, health care officials have been aiming to avoid a repeat. This week's temperatures aren't expected to match last year's heat dome...

MITCHELL: But we are not taking any chances.

RYAN: The region's hospitals have ramped up their system for redirecting ambulances toward less crowded emergency rooms and made other preparations. Providence St. Peter Hospital in Olympia had to send more than 100 staff home last year to reduce the load on its air conditioners. CEO Darin Goss says that's what it took to keep patients' rooms cool.

DARIN GOSS: It was a wake-up call for the impacts of climate change. Having several days over 100 degrees - that really - that was tough for us.

RYAN: Goss says last year's difficulties led the hospital to make some changes.

GOSS: It really led to us, this year, making a difficult decision to rent portable chillers to be ready.

RYAN: The chillers are big diesel-powered units sitting on trailers outside the main hospital building. Goss says it was a difficult decision because of the cost, adding diesel cooling was also a setback for the hospital's efforts to be carbon-neutral by the end of the decade. The Seattle area has long had a mild climate. Most homes don't have air conditioning.

JULIA KITCH: Washington state isn't really designed to take on this kind of heat.

RYAN: Julia Kitch is at a light rail station in Seattle. She happens to work for a heating and cooling contractor.

KITCH: I work in the service department, so I get all the phone calls for all of the overheating equipment.

RYAN: Even Kitch, who works in the industry, has been unable to get A/C for her home recently. Local officials have been putting out heat warnings and advice in multiple languages and opening up cooling centers for those who don't have a place to cool off. But climate often moves faster than government.

JAY INSLEE: We're doing 100 things to respond in the short term.

RYAN: Washington Governor Jay Inslee says the state's doing what it can to keep heat waves from killing people. The city of Seattle has come up with a heat action plan, but it's still in draft, and a county plan won't finish for another year. Inslee says government at all levels needs to do more.

INSLEE: Unless we attack climate change at its source, there are not enough ice cubes or air conditioners on the planet to protect us.

RYAN: As long as humanity keeps adding heat-trapping gases to the atmosphere, we can expect heat waves to get worse. Back at the light rail station, Julia Kitch says her No. 1 worry without air conditioning has been her dog, Arlo (ph).

KITCH: I'll just take my dog to work with me.

RYAN: It may seem small on a planet starting to heat out of control, but Kitch did another thing for Arlo. She bought him booties so he won't burn his paws on the pavement. For NPR News, I'm John Ryan in Seattle.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

John Ryan
Year started with KUOW: 2009