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When heat hits, city hall comes to the rescue

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The blacktop bakes and even the friskiest dogs wilt.

In the Midwest and East, people have been shedding layers and slowing down, trying desperately to escape the oppressive heat in a week when ice cream melts instantaneously and air conditioners labor overtime to cool a few square feet.

But even as complaining about the temperature becomes a national pastime, health experts note that extreme heat poses risks to the elderly, the poor, and the socially isolated. That is why, more than ever, some city halls go into high gear when the sidewalk simmers and air conditioning fails.

"It's strange that we don't usually think of heat waves as serious health hazards or catastrophic disasters, because in typical years heat waves kill more Americans than all other natural disasters combined," says Eric Klinenberg, a sociology professor at New York University and author of "Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago." "But they prove to be eminently forgettable."

Statistics vary widely from year to year, but the National Weather Service pegs the 10-year average for heat fatalities at 235 – nearly half the 569 total average deaths they list from weather-related causes. Many experts say the actual number is more likely over 1,000, since so many of the excess deaths that occur during heat waves are never examined by a coroner or counted as heat-related.

More than 100 people died from heat-related causes in California last week, and cities farther east are now issuing dire warnings, transporting people to cooling centers, and urging residents to drink water and check on their neighbors.

A rise in heat-emergency response

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