Extreme heat is the top weather-related cause of death in the United States, and the Biden administration is urging state and local officials to do more to prepare their communities for the kinds of scorching weather experienced this summer.

The Department of Homeland Security has created new guidelines that officials can use to help design their own extreme temperature response plans.

"I don't think that people really appreciate the scope of the challenge that we are facing as a country," DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas told NPR.

"One in three Americans — which amounts to about 130 million people — are currently living under a heat alert across 22 states of our country," he added. "It's a remarkable problem that requires swift action."

The plans can include creating a notification system for residents when heat advisories go into effect, designating a lead officer for extreme temperatures, and identifying the most vulnerable neighborhoods for targeted outreach, according to the guidelines crafted by the DHS Climate Change Action Group.

The resource guide also encourages community leaders to use the latest hazard-resistant building codes when faced with new construction projects or repairing existing buildings, along with undertaking efforts to eliminate urban heat islands – areas that lack green space and therefore can be roughly 20 degrees hotter than areas that have trees and grass.

The guidelines build on actions President Biden took earlier this summer to better protect communities from extreme heat, including directing the Department of Labor to issue a hazard alert for dangerous conditions in industries like agriculture and construction.

Grants can help encourage communities to prepare for hotter summers

Mayorkas said these extreme temperatures not only take a human toll on communities, but also affect critical infrastructure.

"We've seen an increased demand on the electrical grid from communities, for example, blasting their air conditioners and that can cause dangerous and deadly power outages," Mayorkas said. "We see roadways, runways, railways buckle and weaken in extreme heat, really impairing our ability to get resources to communities in need and really disrupting the day-to-day flow of life in those communities."

Mayorkas said DHS is looking into ways of tracking which states and communities implement the administration's recommended guidelines. He acknowledged guidelines aren't enforceable, but said they still have teeth.

"They are indeed a set of guidelines. But there are a few tools that we have to drive behavior," he explained. "One is we have a grant program that distributes much needed funds to communities to enable them to build a greater level of resilience to extreme heat. That's a matter of incentivizing communities to really participate in what should be a compulsory effort, given the threat to life and to critical infrastructure."

Biden, who has called climate change "a clear and present danger", doubled the funding available through the Federal Emergency Management's Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities initiative in July, bringing the total to $2.3 billion. The program is aimed at helping states and local communities take proactive steps to reduce their vulnerability to extreme temperatures via the bipartisan infrastructure law.

Mayorkas will be hosting a virtual extreme heat summit on Monday alongside FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell to showcase success stories from community leaders who have implemented heat mitigation projects. He hopes the event will encourage officials to take action sooner, rather than later.

"This requires a partnership between and among the federal government, local communities, and the states," Mayorkas said. "I was about to say we need to be ready for tomorrow — but it's really about being ready for today, given that it's upon us."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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