Heat emergency declared in US with millions urged to stay indoors

Juneteenth holiday arrives with record-breaking temperatures, wildfires in New Mexico and a tropical storm in Texas

A man shelters from the sun under an umbrella next to the East River in Manhattan, New York. Photograph: Hiroko Masuike/The New York Times

The last day of spring in the United States was marked by wildfires that forced thousands of residents to flee their homes in New Mexico, the coast of Texas was battered by a tropical storm and 80 million people sweltered under a “heat dome” warning that stretched from the east coast to the Great Lake states.

Meteorologists expected at least 20 daily heat records to be broken as New York governor Kathy Hochul declared a heat emergency. The national guard was activated in two cities, with Ms Hochul citing the I-90 corridor from Buffalo to Albany as particularly dangerous, locations more associated with severe winters.

“We reached out to the emergency management personnel in all 62 counties reminding them to have direct communication with their constituents as well. It is going to be extremely hot and uncomfortable, in fact dangerously hot,” said Ms Hochul.

“The ‘real feel’ temperatures are going to be over 100 degrees starting today,” she said. “Stay indoors. Stay with the air conditioning. If you don’t have air conditioning, go to a library or a government building or a cooling centre near you. Make a plan so you are ready no matter what happens. This is a time of significant risk, so we are doing our best to make sure all lives are protected.”

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Most public buildings were closed on Wednesday to mark Juneteenth, which commemorates the official date of the ending of slavery in the United States.

The arrival of extreme weather conditions before the US summer officially starts on Thursday coincided with a petition from a coalition of environmental and healthcare groups. They are calling for the Federal Emergency Management Agency to place extreme heat and the damage of wildfire smoke in the category of “major disasters”, as occurs after floods and tornadoes.

Granting that status would release funds for vulnerable communities to prepare for future emergencies through the construction of cooling centres or providing air conditioning in schools.

The group warned that 2,300 people died from heat-related illnesses and 130 million Americans were served with heat alerts last year. The petition saidthe punishing conditions disproportionately affected disadvantaged communities.

“In recent years, increasing extreme heat events have impacted millions of workers and communities – ranging from farmworkers sowing outdoor crops under fatal heat dome conditions, to postal workers ducking in and out of searing hot trucks, to warehouse workers experiencing record indoor heat while undertaking fast-paced physical labour, and to communities of colour suffering disproportionate heat while living in concrete urban heat islands, legacies of racist redlining housing policies,” it said.

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Events in the New Mexico mountain town of Ruidoso on Monday night illustrated the sweeping dangers of wildfires, where two separate fires combined to cause a rapid spread engulfing up to 20,000 acres in a matter of hours. More than 8,000 people were forced to flee the town.

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“This thing went from a very small puff of smoke to an all-consuming fire. I didn’t even look in the rear-view mirror,” Steve Jones, the owner of a mountain cabin in the locality told a CBS news channel.

“When we drove away from the house I didn’t give it a second thought. I basically had the attitude that if it’s there when we got back that God’s will, if it’s not that’s God’s will.”

Keith Duggan

Keith Duggan

Keith Duggan is Washington Correspondent of The Irish Times