Rachelle Williams was sick of delivering mail in Indiana winters, so in 2019, she signed up for a transfer to Arizona and joined the flood of newcomers that have made Phoenix one of the fastest-growing cities in the country.
She questioned her move this week as the temperature hit 110 degrees for the 11th straight day Monday, with no end in sight. Ms. Williams wore long sleeves, black gloves and a wide-brimmed visor with flaps covering her neck to block the sun as she walked her way. But no matter how much water or electrolyte solution she drank, her legs tingled and her head spun.
“I don’t even know how I do it,” Ms Williams, 35, said.
Summers in Phoenix is now a brutal endurance match. As the climate warms, forecasters say dangerous heat levels earlier in the year last longer — often well past Halloween — and lock America’s hottest city into sweltering heat.
In triple-digit heat, monkey bars singe children’s hands, water bottles warp and seat belts feel like hot irons. Devoted runners strap on headlamps to jog at 4 a.m. when it’s still only 90 degrees, come home drenched in sweat and quickly roll down the sunny shutters. Neighborhoods feel like ghost towns at noon, with whirring rooftop air conditioners offering the only sign of life.
An unrelenting heat wave is roiling the Southwest, with approximately 50 million people across the United States now facing dangerous temperatures. Forecasters say the current streak of consecutive 110-degree days may end up being the longest Phoenix has ever seen, possibly breaking an 18-day record set in 1974.
Arizona’s problems have been compounded this summer by the delay of monsoons that sweep up from the Gulf of Mexico and help extinguish tinder-dry deserts and mountainsides. The “heat island” effect of Phoenix’s growing urban footprint means that nighttime is also now swelling. The low temperature only dropped to 91 degrees before dawn on Tuesday.
It all added up to an ultramarathon of sweat — one that tests whether Phoenix can adapt to a new reality of longer, deadlier heat waves at a time of water shortages and rising housing costs that have pushed record numbers of people to sleep. baking streets and forcing others to choose between paying rent or air conditioning bills.
“We haven’t even gotten to the worst of it,” said Stacey Sosa, 19, a fashion design student who grew up in Phoenix, adding that she has struggled through months of heat. “We’re just getting started.”
Heat is often described as an invisible disaster — one that leaves few visible scars like the floods ravaging towns in Vermont and upstate New York but that kills far more people each year than hurricanes, tornadoes or wildfires.
last year, 425 people died from heat-related causes in Maricopa County, which encompasses approximately 4.5 million people in Phoenix and its suburbs. It was a record high death toll, and a 25 percent increase over the previous year. Most of the victims were homeless or elderly. Phoenix’s homeless population has grown by 70 percent over the past six years, to more than 9,600, according to a census count this year.
The number of extreme hot days is also increasing. In the early 1900s, Phoenix averaged five days a year with temperatures of 110 degrees or higher, according to Erinanne Saffell, the state’s climatologist. In recent years, the city has slogged through an average of 27,110-degree days a year.
Phoenix tried to face the crisis by setting up a first-in-the-nation city office dedicated to heat. Its efforts include planting trees in unshaded neighborhoods, resurfacing heat-absorbing streets with more reflective pavement, and distributing towels, water and emergency heat supplies.
In Washington, Rep. Ruben Gallego, a Democrat from Phoenix, and other western lawmakers have introduced legislation that would require federal emergency managers to treat heat waves like other natural disasters.
This summer, Phoenix is operating 62 cooling centers and water stations, and has set up “respite centers” that offer people – many of them homeless – a place to rest and sleep during the day.
“Even though our summers are longer and hotter, that doesn’t mean people have to suffer,” said David Hondula, the director of Phoenix’s Office of Heat Response and Mitigation.
But across the city, a loose collection of volunteers and community groups say official outreach efforts have failed to help many homeless and poor people. So they deliver water, ice and electrolyte packs to homeless camps, check in on older residents in mobile homes and hand out slow cookers so people who don’t want to fire up the oven can still make dinner.
On Monday morning, as the temperature soared past 100 degrees, Jeffrey Elliott, 36, a volunteer with Feed Phoenix, a community group, heaved three water bottles and 100 pounds of ice into the back of his car and headed out to make his deliveries. He moved to Phoenix from Atlanta two months ago, and said he doesn’t know if his actions are actually helping. But he said he felt compelled to do something.
“Can you imagine being this hot and miserable?” he said. “It’s like walking in a dryer.”
He stopped by a patch of grass near an interstate where six people huddled in the meager shade of a mezquito. Fifty feet away, in full sun, their friend, who used fentanyl, fell asleep under a reflective apron.
Phoenix says its warming centers serve about 1,600 people a day, but several homeless people said in interviews they didn’t know where to find a cooling center — or didn’t realize they even existed. The city created online maps showing each location, but homeless people said their phones often died or fried easily in the heat.
Robert Jefferson, 47, said he was willing to risk sleeping on the hot streets because being inside a shelter was taxing on his mental health. He was frustrated that the park’s bathrooms were locked, preventing him from even washing his hands.
“What do they expect us to do?” he asked.
By noon, Perry Park, in a working-class Latino neighborhood on the city’s east side, was eerily quiet. A few weeks earlier, the public pool was full of children and families, but it was closed for the summer — a symptom of the city’s struggles to hire sufficiently trained pool managers.
After two years of Covid-related disruptions, 18 of Phoenix’s 29 public pools opened this year, but analysis of The Arizona Republic found that many of those that remained closed were in neighborhoods with high poverty rates. At a community center across the street from Perry Pool, several children said they couldn’t understand why theirs was empty.
Mia, 9, said she loved the pool, especially since she couldn’t be out in the 110-degree heat, which gave her “a really weird stomach feeling.” Adriely, 13, said she loved being able to walk from her house to the pool.
Outside of her summer job teaching dance classes to younger kids at the community center, Adriely said she mostly felt confined to staying inside on 110-degree days. Arizona’s snowbirds and families in wealthier neighborhoods may slip away for the summer, but Adriely said her parents and others in the neighborhood had to work.
“There’s really nothing you can do,” she said. “I’m just trying to survive.”