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Surviving a Heatwave/Blackout Combo

Surviving a Heatwave/Blackout Combo

A couple weeks before this posting, I read this extremely grim article from the New York Times (I know, surprising, right?) about a study concerning blackouts during heatwaves and their effect on death and illness. The conclusion of this study is fairly easy to see: a blackout during a heatwave is bad news. However, the particulars are really quite disturbing. Sampling three American cities: Phoenix, Atlanta, and Detroit, the study found that such an event can potentially kill thousands, and hospitalize–in the case of Phoenix–almost literally half the city.

There is a lot to unpack here. Obviously, no city can hospitalize half of its population. The average number of beds for the United States is a p-scary 2.8 per 1,000–a fact that should be on your minds since we're not that far out from the still-extant-but-ignored COVID-19 pandemic. And Phoenix is an extreme case, being a very populous Southwestern city in the middle of the desert that needs AC to survive. But between the three cities selected by the study, you get a decent smattering of locale, weather, and grid usage/vulnerability.

Blackouts and heatwaves go hand in hand because demand for electricity surges as people try to get out of the heat. In a perfect world, we would have stable grids that could handle this, but we don't live in a perfect world. We live in a world where fascists take potshots at power stations, where storms miles away from town can cause thousands to lose electricity, where profits matter over people. This is not a perfect world. It's worth noting, I think, that the article and study above do not mention domestic terrorism as a risk factor in these situations–just hacking of the power grid. Which is also a thing. But to ignore the more low-tech threat is a significant lacuna.

I'm not going to spend much time talking about why this is bad and why it will only get worse. You know all that by now. What you may not quite grasp is that blackouts are becoming more common in the States, and the reasons why that is occurring are not going away. Threat multipliers to these conditions are becoming more common–so that a hurricane precedes a heatwave, or follows shortly after, or some other deadly disaster comes in the wake of a different deadly disaster. And some people might be willing to take advantage of these situations or to precipitate them, with the knowledge that our white supremacist-ass nation has ensured that people of color will be the first and worst hit when disasters like this strike.

Preparing for the Combo

We've already gone over how to prepare for a heatwave before, and even in blackout conditions. However, I want to expand on some of those ideas and to reiterate others. The Times article really underscores the danger here, even though it should already be apparent to us. Worldwide, between 2010-2019 (a significant portion of that time being before climate change had peaked our temperature in 2016), 70,000 people died from excessive heat. This total, of course, misses out on our recent heatwaves. Heat deaths in the US are up 56% from 2018. Again, I don't mean to prattle, but this is a serious issue.

In previous prep guides for heat, I've sort of worked under the estimation that we're not dealing with continuous life-threatening heat–heat from which you can feasibly escape, or even survive without intervention in some cases. Not so here. We're talking apocalyptic heat here. And that doesn't mean some mind-boggling number; it turns out that 87°F at 100% humidity is enough to prevent your body from cooling itself, which will eventually overheat you, damage your internal organs, and eventually kill you. That is not especially hot.

So, despite the fact that we may only be talking 87° in some instances, this is lethal heat. Tips like "wear a hat" and "drink lots of water" are insufficient to prolonged exposure. This is heat that your body is unable to regulate–meaning you need to get your body out of that situation one way or another. Wet rags, Gatorade, fans with buckets of ice behind them are not "survival" tips. They are bandages. What you need to do, ultimately, is create a space that is below the threshold of these lethal conditions.

To create an environment that is cooler than the outside when you anticipate a heatwave and/or a blackout, you've got to act ahead of time. Most of these preps are for a house, rather than an apartment, but some are universal. You should have, ready and waiting for such an event:

  1. Cardboard covers for your windows with aluminum foil lining one side–shiny-side out. Have a way to affix these to your windows without causing damage to window frames, like painters tape–it doesn't need to be airtight, just secure. This will greatly reduce the amount of heat entering your home from direct sunlight.
  2. Umbrellas, sun shades, or–if you've really thought ahead–trees or shrubs to help shade as much of your home as possible. This is, again, particularly important around windows (and doors).
  3. Food that does not require cooking. You'll want to minimize any heat you produce in your home, so using a stove (or even a microwave) should be limited as much as possible. Likewise, you're gonna want to open your refrigerator and freezer as infrequently as you can, so be thinking about food that you'll eat lukewarm that you can tolerate.
  4. Speaking of your fridge: fill it alllll the way up. Any space not in use for food, fill up with bottles of water and electrolyte drinks. A full, cold fridge lasts longer than an empty cold fridge. Same goes for your freezer. Spoiling food is not your absolute concern in this scenario but this appliance is essentially a cold well for you, so you'll want to keep it that way as long as you can.
  5. Plan to seal off rooms with windows that aren't in use and locate, ideally, a room in the middle of the house at the lowest possible floor for use as your "habitat." You'll also want this room to have minimal square footage–enough for you and others to be in but not to play a game of tag.

Once you suspect you're in for a heatwave/blackout or combo thereof, make sure you've got these items ready to go. Once they are set, you are in a game of attrition against the nature of the universe to equalize temperatures across a given space. If you are not confident in the ability of your home or yourself to sustain adequately cool temperatures, I cannot stress enough that you need an alternate plan. Waiting for sunset and sleep in the era of climate change is not going to save you, as temperatures may not decrease enough for a real respite. Contact friends, neighbors, your local government, the Red Cross, whomever, to find a more adequate shelter. If you have a vehicle that's in good shape, park it in the shade, cover up the windows, and run the AC in there. It'll give you a break, but beware the police ruining your day if you're in public.

The reality of this situation is that nowhere, in a long enough heatwave and blackout, will not get intolerably hot. The only surefire (or nearly) way to ensure this sort of scenario doesn't catch up to you is to have an alternate means of air conditioning your home. Fans and water simply don't cut it when we're talking lethal wet bulb temperatures. I am loath to recommend big purchases, but a generator and a portable air conditioner are your best bets for this–everything else is tenuous. Because they are big purchases, my recommendation is that you begin looking at this problem as something with a community solution. Invest in these items with your friends, neighbors, or a mutual aid group so that you can provide each other with safety in an otherwise extremely dangerous scenario.

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