Q&A: How can Texans prepare for extreme heat?
When will it cool down? How do you keep utility costs down in the rising temps? Here are answers to your questions about the heat.
AUSTIN, Texas (TEXAS TRIBUNE) - A heat wave that developed in the second half of June and continued through much of the summer brought triple digit temperatures to much of Texas. This surge prompted spikes in heat-related illness and calls for electricity conservation to avoid overloading the state’s power grid.
The earth recorded its warmest July on record this year, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Climate change has increased average temperatures globally, and in Texas likely made the heat dome hotter than it would’ve been otherwise. Heat waves are becoming both more common and more severe due to climate change, scientists have found.
Forty-five counties in Texas — mostly in the southeast, southwest and south-central areas of the state — had their hottest July on record, according to Texas State Climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon. Texas will almost certainly record its second-hottest summer on record this year, Nielsen-Gammon said.
Heat is one of the most dangerous types of weather, typically killing more people annually in the U.S. than hurricanes, tornadoes or floods.
The Texas Tribune gathered questions from readers about the extreme heat. Below are answers, according to climate, public health, and environment experts, in addition to state and federal agencies and community advocates. Reader-submitted questions were edited for brevity and clarity.
When is it expected to cool down? Are we stuck in this heat wave forever?
Fall is coming — and with it, cooler temperatures. Still, it’s expected to be a warmer than average fall in Texas, according to NOAA’s monthly forecast. Particularly in Southeast and Central Texas, September is expected to be warmer than typical for that month.
At the same time, a drought developed across much of the state that is likely to continue through the fall. Dry conditions in Texas generally correlate with hotter temperatures.
How can people keep themselves and their pets safe from the heat?
Heat-related illness can include symptoms of weakness, dizziness and nausea. You should promptly take action to avoid a heat-related illness from turning into a heat stroke. Heat strokes — a life threatening emergency — include symptoms of a loss of consciousness, confusion and a high body temperature of 103 degrees or higher.
To avoid heat-related illness, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends limiting exposure to the sun, especially during the hottest time of day between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., and hydrating with electrolytes throughout the day. Avoid sugary, caffeinated drinks or alcohol. Don’t wait until you are thirsty to hydrate.
However, if your doctor limits the amount of water you drink, ask your doctor how much to drink during the hot weather. If you are on a low-salt diet, have high blood pressure, diabetes or other chronic conditions, ask your doctor before consuming electrolytes or salt tablets.
Avoid hot and heavy meals because they can add heat to your body.
If you have to go outside, wear sunscreen and loose-fitting and light-colored clothing. Never leave adults, children or pets alone in a hot vehicle. And if you’re working or outside for extended time, make sure to take frequent breaks.
Other precautions you can take in your home include covering large windows, weather stripping your doors and sills to keep cool air in and building a disaster kit in case of power outages, according to the National Integrated Heat Health Information System.
Animals can also suffer from heat stroke. The American Red Cross warns owners to watch for heavy panting, a brick red gum color, a fast pulse and the animal being unable to get up. If the animal’s temperature is above 105 degrees, you can cool the animal down by using a water hose, until the temperature reaches 103 degrees, and then seek veterinary treatment immediately.
To prevent heat stroke in animals, the American Red Cross recommends ensuring animals have plenty of fresh and cool water and shade if they are outdoors.
Apart from heat exhaustion or stroke, what other issues can heat exposure cause?
Other heat-related symptoms include cramps, sunburns and rashes, which can be the first warning signs of excessive heat exposure.
If you get muscle pain and spasms, the CDC says to stop physical activity, go to a cool place and drink water or a sports drink. Wait until the cramps have gone away to continue physical activity.
If your cramps last more than an hour or you have heart problems or are on a low-sodium diet, seek medical attention.
If you get a sunburn, don’t go out in the sun until your sunburn has healed.
A heat rash is a cluster of small blisters. It’s usually red and found in areas like the neck, chest and creases. If you get one, the CDC suggests you stay in a cool and dry place, keep the rash dry and use baby powder to soothe the rash.
Some doctors in Texas have flagged a spike in other health problems indirectly caused by the heat, including heart failure and an increase in violence, aggression, and mental health emergencies.
Dr. Iván Meléndez, the health authority for Hidalgo County, for example, told the Tribune that he’s seen several patients with heart problems during the heatwave, because as patients with heart failure drink more water, they have an increase in fluid buildup and swelling. If you have heart failure, ask your doctor how much fluid you should drink daily.
Decades of research have linked violence to hotter times of the year. In a recent 2019 study of Los Angeles from the National Bureau of Economic Research, researchers found that violent crime increased 5.7% on days that exceeded 85 degrees.
The American Psychiatric Association has also warned that extreme heat is associated with increases in irritability, symptoms of depression and an increase in suicide. You can call or text the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline if you or a loved one is experiencing a mental health crisis.
Are symptoms of depression due to heat common?
Research has linked extreme heat and high temperatures with increased irritability, symptoms of depression and an increase in deaths by suicide, according to the American Pyschiatric Association.
However, research and data on summer seasonal affective disorder is not as extensive as with winter SAD, according to the Washington Post. One study of almost 3,000 Danish subjects found about 0.1% met the criteria for Summer SAD. This suggests that it could be rarer than winter SAD, which affects about 5% of Americans.
But people experiencing summer SAD may have a greater risk of suicide, and the condition should be taken seriously. If you think you may be experiencing summer SAD, it’s important to acknowledge your feelings and try to seek medical attention, according to The Post.
Taking cold showers and staying in air conditioned places may help, along with treatment for depression. You can find more information about heat and mental health from the Anxiety & Depression Association of America here.
The Texas Tribune also has a guide on how to care for your mental health amid natural disasters here. For disaster mental health support, call or text (800) 985-5990. You can also call or text the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline if you or a loved one is experiencing a mental health crisis.
How can I reduce my electricity bill during a heat wave?
Texans can shrink their bills by improving the energy efficiency of their homes and by reducing the amount of energy they consume. The Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which manages the state’s electricity grid, recommends that Texans avoid using large appliances, turn off and unplug non-essential lights and appliances, and raise their thermostats by a degree or two to reduce power use.
Alice Liu, West Street Recovery’s co-director of communications, rebuild and fundraising, said that air conditioning typically makes up the majority of the cost on electricity bills. She recommended using heavy curtains to reduce the amount of cooling necessary. For people with window air conditioning units, it can be helpful to conserve energy by keeping only one or two essential rooms cool rather than attempting to cool the entire home.
The Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs Weatherization Program provides energy audits and home repairs for low-income Texans, funded by the U.S. Department of Energy.
After an audit is complete, organizations funded by the program can install weatherization materials and minor home repairs, such as window sealing, to help control electricity costs. To apply for the program, which is open to households at or below 200% of the federal poverty guidelines, Texans must contact their local program provider, which you can search for on the TDHCA website, and their retail electric provider, according to the Public Utility Commission.
Texas no longer provides a state-funded program to help low-income families pay their electric bills, however, many electric providers provide benefits to low-income customers. The PUC recommends that Texans who are in the supplemental nutrition assistance program (SNAP) or on Medicaid contact their electric provider to find out what assistance is available.
You can also call the Energy Assistance Hotline at (866) 674-6327 between 8 am CT and 6 pm CT to get help connecting with your local low-income energy office.
How can I get help fixing the air conditioning?
Texas law requires landlords to make a diligent effort to repair a problem if it “materially affects the physical health or safety of an ordinary tenant.”
But Ben Martin, a research director for Texas Housers, said that it’s not explicitly clear in state law whether that applies to air conditioning. Still, some tenants have successfully sued under that provision to require their landlords to fix air conditioning, he said.
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Because there are several requirements and steps for requesting the repair — such as providing the landlord with a reasonable amount of time to make the repair and being current on rent — Martin recommends that tenants contact a lawyer for help filing a remedy and repair case. The Texas Young Lawyers Association and the State Bar of Texas also have a Tenants’ Rights Handbook available.
Aside from tenants’ rights, some cities and counties in Texas assist residents with installing or fixing their air conditioning. For example, Dallas County offers a program to assist low-income households with fixing air-conditioning units or providing air-conditioning window units. Christian Grisales, a public information officer for Dallas County Health & Human Services, previously told the Tribune that the program prioritizes elderly and disabled residents, as well as families with small children.
Some low-income Texans may qualify for heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) assistance through federally-funded weatherization programs. You can also call the Energy Assistance Hotline at (866) 674-6327 between 8 am CT and 6 pm CT to get help connecting with your local Low-Income Energy Office.
Some Texas cities, including Houston and Dallas, have codes or ordinances that require landlords to keep units cool. But it’s unclear whether those local regulations will remain in effect if House Bill 2127, passed by state lawmakers earlier this year, is allowed to take effect. Martin, of Texas Housers, said he’s hopeful those codes will be protected.
How can people without shelter stay cool?
Cities such as Austin have made public libraries and parks and recreation facilities cooling centers during normal operating hours, but advocates say more temporary housing and shelters are needed to help people experiencing homelessness in the extreme heat.
Texans can find a list of cooling centers on local government websites and on the Texas Health and Human Services Commission’s 211 website. Type “cooling centers” into the website’s search bar for a statewide list. You can apply a filter to look at cooling centers by city, county or ZIP code.
How many deaths have been attributed to heat?
As of July 20, there have been at least 36 heat-related deaths in Texas, according to data compiled by the Texas Department of State Health Services. However, these early figures aren’t final, and several experts have said the state’s numbers are almost certainly an undercount. That’s because not all deaths caused by heat are attributed to hyperthermia — excessive exposure to natural heat.
In 2022, during one of the hottest summers on record, the state estimated 279 people in Texas were killed by the heat, a two-decade high.
How can I help outdoor animals during extreme heat?
The heat can affect pets and wild animals. You can help by providing shade and water or alerting authorities if an animal appears to be in distress.
If you spot a dog in distress or left alone inside a hot car, the Texas Humane Network recommends quickly contacting local law enforcement or animal control, raising awareness to see if you can locate the owner, documenting the situation and continuing to monitor the animal. While Texas law protects people from liability for entering a vehicle to save a person, this does not apply to animal rescues.
Texas law does, however, require dogs left unattended outside by their owners to have drinkable water and shelter from inclement weather, including extreme high temperatures. If they are tethered, safe restraints, such as cable tie-outs correctly attached to a collar or harness, must be used instead of chains, and the restraint must be no shorter than five times the dog’s length.
You can help wild animals during a drought or heat wave by conserving water and planting native plants when conditions improve, according to Texas Parks and Wildlife. If you see an orphaned or injured animal, you can call a local wildlife rehabilitator. Find a rehabilitator by county here.
If trees die during this heat wave, will it be harder for us to stay cool next year?
Most Texas trees are in some kind of heat stress due to the current drought conditions, said Mac Martin, the urban and community forestry program lead for Texas A&M’s Forest Service. And with the droughts and freezes in Texas since 2021, trees may have a harder time withstanding the current heat and drought.
Wildfires are another risk to tree health this year. A fairly wet spring season led to more plant growth, which have now dried out and become wildfire fuel, Martin said.
Trees help keep areas cool through their shade and process of evaporation, which cools surrounding air, so fewer trees could lead to some warmer areas.
To protect their trees, Texans can ensure they have enough soil moisture by soaking the roots and soil early in the morning, like 3 or 4 a.m., when water is less likely to evaporate. Adding a ring of mulch, 2 to 3 inches high, to your tree also helps maintain soil moisture.
The Texas A&M Forest Service’s TreeCovery Program, a fund that takes donations, also provides free trees to communities who have lost trees to natural disasters. Learn more about trees and drought through the Forest Service here.
Emily Foxhall, Julia Guilbeau and Joe Timmerman contributed to this story.
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