It really is the heat. And the humidity.
This week’s blast of June in Missouri came with lots of both, and the occasional thunderstorm only helped a little. Sure, Midwesterners know this stuff, but let’s walk through 10 quick questions.
1 Shouldn’t I worry more about tornadoes and destructive thunderstorms?
Take precautions for all likely bad weather, but remember that while a tornado might hit your neighborhood with devastating results, you can count on the heat – and you can do something about it. According to preparemetrokc.org, more people in Kansas City die from heat-related conditions that from all other types of bad weather. In Missouri last year, 11 people died, but that figure was 34 in 2007 and 92 in 1992. Nationwide, an average of 350 people die from the effects of heat each year, according to the Centers for Disease Conrol and Prevention.
2 So stay in the shade – or the A/C – and guzzle the ice water, right?
That’s a good start. The Independence Health Department reminds everyone to drink more fluids – non-alcoholic, non-caffeinated drinks such as water and juice are best – and drink more than your thirst indicates. Wear lightweight, light-colored, loose-fitting clothing. If you do work outside, start slowly and pick up the pace gradually – and take frequent breaks in the shade. Keep an eye on those you’re working with, and have them do the same for you. Do as much of this in the morning or evening as you can. Hang out in the A/C, and go to the library, supermarket, mall or theater if needed. Check on those at high risk: the elderly, those under 4, those who are overweight or on medication.
3 Those are the do’s. What are the don’ts?
Don’t leave infants, children or pets in a parked car or other hot environment, the Health Department reminds us. Don’t rely on fans for primary cooling.
4 They say it’s worse in the city. Is that right?
Yes. Cities are heat islands, and most heat-related deaths occur in cities. Buildings, streets and such things as tar roofs absorb heat during the day and release it slowly at night, so temperatures can be several degrees higher in the city than in the country – both day and night.
5 Why does heat make air quality worse?
The air quality in Kansas City is better than in many large cities, but we have our days when it gets pretty bad. Power plants and other industries contribute some to the smog, but so do our cars and lawn mowers. For example, lawnmowers alone account for 9 percent of the ozone in the summertime air in Kansas City, according to the Mid-America Regional Council.
High levels of ground-level ozone can make it harder to breathe, especially for people with asthma and other respiratory problems. The daily SkyCast (listed on The Examiner’s weather page) includes green (good), yellow (moderate), orange alert and red alert. So far this year we’ve had one orange alert, but eight to 10 a year are common. The last red alert was in 2006.
Yellow – an elevated level of ozone – means those with allergies or respiratory ailments should think about limiting their outdoor exertion. Orange and red both indicate that children are at risk. The high levels of ozone make it hard for the lungs to absorb oxygen, causing coughing. Cut back on outdoor activities, and try to do them before 10 a.m. or after 7 p.m. Try to drive less, and if you can, put off driving errands for a day or two until the air gets better. Even fueling your car releases fumes that contribute to ozone, so put it off or fill up after dusk. A red alert means everyone should avoid prolonged outdoor exertion.
6 How bad can it be?
The state record high temperature is 118, on July 14, 1954, in Warsaw, Mo.
7 How does the “heat index” work exactly?
We all know that 90 with low humidity is tolerable and 90 with high humidity is uncomfortable and potentially unhealthy. The heat index combines heat and humidity to estimate what it really feels like out there. For example, 90 degrees plus a relatively modest 45 percent humidity feels like 93. Anything in the high 90s is a heads up, and anything in triple digits means take it easy. The National Weather Service this week issued an advisory because the forecast – and it was right – said the heat index would hit 105 to 108 two days in a row.
8 Aren’t the elderly more vulnerable to excessive heat?
Yes, because of a diminished ability to perspire, meaning the body has less capacity to release heat. Others are at risk, too: infants and young children, those with chronic health problems (especially heart disease) or disabilities, those who are obese, those who use alcohol or drugs. And one more group – those not acclimated to this stuff.
9 So escape is one good strategy?
Sure. It was 67 in San Francisco on Friday – but they have earthquakes. It was sunny and 75 at Martha’s Vineyard – but they get a hurricane once in a while. There’s always Colorado.
10 You’d think they would do something to promote public awareness.
They do. Today ends this year’s Missouri Summer Weather Safety Week, promoted by the National Weather Service, the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services, and the State Emergency Management Agency. Check the paper, check the radio, check the TV or listen to your NOAA Weather Radio – a handy thing for all kinds of weather emergencies – for the heat watches, warnings and advisories. The Weather Service office in Pleasant Hill has a wealth of data on its website at www.crh.noaa.gov/eax/