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Could Maryland handle a ‘heat dome’? How about one combined with a deadly, Texas-style power outage? | COMMENTARY

BALTIMORE, MD.--7/13/06--Dr. Joshua M. Sharfstein (cq), Baltimore City Health Commissioner, announced the city's plans for handling health risks for senior citizens during heat emergency in the summer months. The plans include a Code Red Heat Alert and the Baltimore City Energy Assistance initiative, which links residents with energy assistance programs. Lillian Jones, 78, left, who attends programs at the mid-town Waxter Senior Center, listen in on the press conference that announced the program. PHOTO BY KENNETH K. LAM/ BALTIMORE SUN DIGITAL IMAGE _DSC1211
BALTIMORE, MD.--7/13/06--Dr. Joshua M. Sharfstein (cq), Baltimore City Health Commissioner, announced the city's plans for handling health risks for senior citizens during heat emergency in the summer months. The plans include a Code Red Heat Alert and the Baltimore City Energy Assistance initiative, which links residents with energy assistance programs. Lillian Jones, 78, left, who attends programs at the mid-town Waxter Senior Center, listen in on the press conference that announced the program. PHOTO BY KENNETH K. LAM/ BALTIMORE SUN DIGITAL IMAGE _DSC1211

I like to think I’m pretty familiar with climate change issues. I’ve worked on climate change legislation in Annapolis for several years, and I wrote a short novel 10 years ago envisioning the impacts of major climate change. So, I’m used to reading about the dangers of global warming and its society-altering effects. Not that I’ve become numb to the dangers — far from it — but with the frequency of new research on climate change, almost everything is alarming, and it’s rare that one study or article stands out.

But one recent story did stand out. This spring, the New York Times published an article about research examining the risk to cities of a combined power failure and heat wave. (“A New, Deadly Risk for Cities in Summer: Power Failures during Heat Waves,” May 3.)   Even before the recent “heat dome” that seared the Pacific Northwest and parts of Canada, we knew that climate change was making heat waves worse and more common. But in this study, published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology, researchers looked at what would happen if a heat wave coincided with a major power failure. The results of the research — which focused on Atlanta, Phoenix and Detroit and determined how hot residential buildings would get — were startling.

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More than two-thirds of residents in those cities would be at risk of heat exhaustion or heat stroke. In Phoenix, the entire population would be vulnerable. While each city has designated cooling centers, combined they would hold no more than 2% of a city’s population — and none of these cities require these centers to have backup generators, which would be essential during a power failure. No doubt, EMS providers, hospitals and other health care facilities would be overwhelmed.

Then, a month after reading the article, the heat dome — a “thousand year” heat wave — hit Oregon, Washington and southern British Columbia, areas not accustomed to such heat. Heat records were shattered, and grim news of fatalities followed. In British Columbia, the excessive heat was the likely cause of almost 500 deaths; in northwest U.S. states, fatalities totaled more than 180.

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Most Marylanders are accustomed to hot, humid summers. Still, I’m sure we all cringed and worried about how tough it would be to endure a heat dome of comparable intensity in our state. It wouldn’t be easy. And after reading the May article, I have to wonder: What would happen if a heat dome arrived and soon after, perhaps because of a surge in electric demand, the power went out in a Maryland city?

We have some experience with that type of scenario. On June 29, 2012, a “derecho” struck Maryland and other states during a heat wave. The derecho knocked out power to more than a million Marylanders, and 16 Marylanders succumbed to the heat.

While the loss of life in 2012 was relatively modest, heat waves are becoming more frequent and more intense. The recent heat dome in the northwest resulted in temperatures as high as 121 degrees. If a heat dome settled over Maryland, what would happen?

Many jurisdictions would need to quickly open cooling shelters. Baltimore City has a Code Red plan for complex heat emergencies and would be able to mobilize more fire and EMS resources and provide ice and potable water. But how many other jurisdictions are prepared? And, would the resources of any jurisdiction be enough if the power went out? Would cooling centers have enough capacity, and do the centers have backup generators? Would hospitals have the ability to treat everyone who was suffering from heat stroke?

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There is some good news at the state level. The reliability of the electric grid has improved over the past decade, due to utility investments in grid reliability and oversight by the Public Service Commission. Utilities are already working to reduce peak power demand during summer months. These are important steps that reduce the chances of a power blackout. Also, Maryland’s Emergency Management Agency (MEMA), through its Disaster Risk Reduction team, is developing projects that can be funded to reduce disaster risk.

But this is a threat that requires a lot more attention and resources. For example, state government could provide more funding to cities and counties to help them expand the number of cooling centers and EMS services that would be available in the event of a heat dome. MEMA should do simulations of what might happen if there was a joint heat wave and power blackout.

As the lead author of the study released in May, Professor Brian Stone, said, a “widespread blackout during an intense heat wave may be the deadliest climate-related event we can imagine.” Let’s work to make sure that if/when such a calamity happens, we’re prepared.

Del. Dana Stein (dana.stein@house.state.md.us), a Democrat, represents Baltimore County in the Maryland House of Delegates and is vice chair of the House Environment and Transportation Committee.

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