Tri-County’s Natural Hazard Mitigation Plan, which covers Peoria, defines heat waves as relatively inconsequential. History tells us differently: Chicago 1995, 700 dead; France 2003, 15,000 dead; Western Russia 2010, 50,000 dead.
Before Tri-County releases its 2020 plan, it could consult with climate scientists and heat wave experts, change course and upgrade the hazard ranking of heat waves. If a potential disaster that can kill on a mass scale carries a date-uncertain but likely occurrence, foresight requires preparation before the disaster arrives, not after.
If a two-week heat wave, with 105°F to 125°F heat + humidity scores, blankets Peoria this August, what should Peoria do to prepare?
First needed are emergency cooling centers at multifunctional entities, such as libraries, senior centers, recreational and sports facilities. Police and fire stations are helpful, but not the best locations. Centers should be open 9 to 9 including weekend hours, when needed. Next, free transportation to and from the centers is required. Ideally, plans would include means for sheltering pets, since many pet owners will not abandon their companions. Long term, centers should have solar + storage for backup electricity in case of a blackout.
Second, Peoria County’s “transport first, treat second” heat stroke protocol must be updated. In the past, this approach has overwhelmed emergency rooms during major heat wave. Frontline health workers have 30 minutes or less to reduce a dangerously high core body temperature before it damages brains, hearts, kidneys, lungs and livers. Timely treatment was often impossible during the Chicago’s heat wave with many dying or suffering permanent organ damage when emergency rooms were overrun.
A new protocol “flattens the curve” by moving treatment into the field with full-body, ice-water immersion. Since most heat stroke occurs in peoples’ homes, tubs or showers are readily available. “Treat first, transport second” is now the gold standard protocol – but it is not employed in Peoria.
Third, emergency command center staff must be trained and equipped to deal with the slow, stealthy nature of heat waves. Emergency command staff are well prepared and rehearsed for tornadoes, floods, airport plane crashes, nuclear and chemical accidents. Unfortunately, heat waves receive little attention. In the 2010 Tri-County Hazard Mitigation Plan, heat waves were not “analyzed in detail … due to their limited impacts to population and infrastructure” (p. 141). If there’s no analysis, there’s no preparation. Thus, when the first killer heat wave settles over the city, Peorians, like their Chicago brethren in 1995, will be caught flatfooted and completely unprepared.
Fourth, no water shutoffs during July-August or before/during National Weather Service notification of an impending heat wave. Shutting off water during extreme heat can kill people. That is why Illinois prohibits gas and electric utilities from terminating service during extreme weather. Why then do state legislators grant for-profit water utilities, like Illinois American Water, a Sixth Commandment exemption?
These are the key parts of a stopgap plan. I hope that Peoria’s City Council has the foresight and wisdom to enact some kind of plan soon. If not, Peoria will be shooting craps with Mother Nature in the belief that, summer after summer, it will avoid throwing snake eyes.
Snake eyes, 1 to 36 odds? That’s good, cynics might say.
Wrong. Mother Nature has loaded the dice.
William Rau is an Illinois State University emeritus professor of sociology.