Alfredo Garza Jr. died in his bedroom with two broken air conditioners, on a street in downtown Laredo, Texas across from a coffee shop and bakery. When his body was found, the temperature inside the room was 106 degrees.
Nearby on the same day in June, in a small house behind his sister’s house, Jorge Sanchez, 67, suffered the heat with nothing but a fan to cool him, and then succumbed to temperatures reaching 113 degrees. An extreme heatwave also engulfed another man, as yet unidentified by authorities, who parked his truck on a busy residential street with his hazard lights flashing and died.
Heat is nothing new in a place like Laredo, where summer temperatures regularly soar well above 100 degrees. But the seemingly endless wave of searing heat and sweltering humidity that kicked in in mid-June — parked for weeks over much of the nation’s South and West — is presenting unknown and deadly new dangers.
« People are used to being without air conditioning, surviving without air conditioning, » Dr. Corinne Stern, medical examiner for Webb County, which includes Laredo, said in an interview at her autopsy room. “But it was too hot. The residents were caught off guard and we lost many people as a result. »
In all, 10 people died from heat-related illnesses within the Laredo city limits between June 15 and July 3, a toll unheard of in this heat-accustomed corner of Texas. Although public health officials in several states have said that a complete and accurate count of how many people have died from the recent heat attack is weeks, if not months away, the Laredo experience has suggested that the final number could be substantial – a harbinger of a future in which heat waves become a regular public health crisis.
Across the country, extreme heat, which can strain the heart, lungs and kidneys, is a problem leading cause of death related to weather conditions. In Texas last year, at least 306 people died of heat-related causes, according to the state health department, the highest annual total in more than two decades. Among them were 158 non-residents, a figure that includes migrants traversing the state’s rugged terrain. During the heat wave in Webb County, at least two migrants were found dead on local ranches, according to Sheriff Martin Cuellar.
The superheated dome of high-pressure air that’s pressing down on much of the country will likely stay in place for at least a few more days, forecasters said, pushing temperatures to dangerous heights from parts of California all the way to Florida. And temperature readings tell only part of the story, public health officials have warned, because humid air makes the heat worse, making it much more difficult for the body to cool down. And in cities like Laredo, the air can get even hotter as the sun bakes the sidewalk, with little respite at night.
Across the country, public health officials have begun thinking about new ways to monitor and respond to heat-related illnesses in order to better protect residents, especially those whose jobs require them to work outdoors. In Louisiana, the state began in April tracking the number of people in hospital emergency rooms in real time due to the heat, a system similar to the one used during the pandemic to keep Covid-19 outbreaks under control. Similar medical surveillance systems have been implemented Virginiaand the California Legislature approved the creation of one there.
The aim is to use the data to better educate the public and to target help to those suffering from the heat, said Dr. Alicia Van Doren, a preventive medicine doctor who is advising Louisiana on its prevention program. of heat sickness. « It’s still early days, » she said, adding that more needed to be done – and quickly.
« We already have about 35 danger days a year, where it’s essentially too hot to work outside, » said Dr. Van Doren. With climate change, he added, « it is expected to increase to around 100 by 2030. »
Several Texas counties publish data on emergency room admissions for heat-related illnesses, as does the city of Dallas. The figures reflect what is widely known about extremely hot weather: As the temperature rises into dangerous territory, the number of people suffering from heatstroke or life-threatening heatstroke rises as well. Most of those were hospitalized were men of working agereflecting the fact that, for many Americans, heat is an occupational hazard.
« Data is what helps us get the message out, » said Dr. Peter Huang, director of the Dallas County Department of Public Health. “Bottom line: the heat is getting worse. Everyone has to do what they can, because we want to prevent people from dying. »
The county provides free air conditioners to residents who can’t afford them, distributing more than 400 last year and nearly 300 so far this year, Dr Huang said.
No such program exists for Webb County, a vast expanse of nearly shadeless farmland in South Texas that includes the palm-dotted city of Laredo, one of the busiest gateways for international truck traffic to and from Mexico. .
Instead, the county has opened more than a dozen cooling centers, organized « fan drives » to give away fans, and leaned into a system of « promoters”, well-connected local people who help officials disseminate important health information across their networks and in community centers.
« She’s like that aunt who knows everyone, who gets along with everyone, » said Tano Tijerina, the county judge for Webb County, describing the approach.
Mr. Tijerina said the county had not contemplated starting a program to provide free air conditioners to residents. « If you’re going to start distributing air conditioners, where are you going to stop? » he said. « We are an aid, we will help, we will assist. » But he added, « we’re talking about people’s tax dollars here. »
Nearly the entire city and county population is Hispanic, according to United States Census estimates, and many residents have lived their entire lives enduring the region’s famously hot climate. A longtime local meteorologist calls himself « Heat wave.”
« We’re used to the heat, » said Armando Acosta, 24, a metal worker in Laredo, as he finished erecting the frame of a shade structure outside a home this week, working in the scorching sun. « But it’s the suffocating air, » he said.
His colleague Cristian Patiño, 32, said they each drank about 15 bottles of water during the working day and took breaks roughly every hour.
Workers make up a large share of hospital admissions for heat-related illnesses, but in Laredo, the people who died in the latest heat wave were mostly older people who were home alone and didn’t have air conditioning or chose not to turn up, said Dr. Stern, the coroner.
« They thought, ‘I’m used to this heat,' » he said. « This is what we heard from their family, ‘Oh, I’m used to this heat, I have it.' »
One victim, a 68-year-old female, died despite having a functioning air conditioner in her home. « Her daughters had seen her the night before, to bring her food, and they had said, ‘Mom, turn on the air conditioning, it’s hot in here,’ and she didn’t want to, » said Dr. Stern . « I didn’t want to turn it on, to save money. »
Money was also a major concern in the home of Mr. Garza, 61, who died in a room with two broken air conditioners.
He had recently discontinued most of his work as a registered nurse and moved with his brother, JP, and their 71-year-old aunt, to an older neighborhood in downtown Laredo, not far from the county courthouse.
The two brothers had grown up in the brick house, said JP Garza, 51. « In the 70s and 80s, it was hot, » he said. “But this was a different kind of heat. This is a type of heat that magnifies the sun on the ants. This is beyond anything we’ve had before.
The brothers didn’t get along, said the younger Mr. Garza; they argued frequently and often kept to themselves inside the small house, where the temperature on hot days was often hotter inside than outside.
« We didn’t really talk about how hot it was, other than him saying, ‘Man, it’s really hot,’ or ‘Oh man, it’s really hot in there,' » Mr. Garza said of his older brother. « I told him, just open the windows, get a couple of box fans, make one that blows in one direction and out the other. » He said his brother bought him an oscillating fan which provided little relief.
Early in the morning of June 21, Mr. Garza found his brother collapsed on the living room floor. He fought to get his brother up, using his aunt’s cane. « He just looked at me all giddy and said, ‘Thanks, man,’ and went back to his room, » Mr. Garza said. « We weren’t the very talkative types. »
Mr. Garza said he began to worry later in the morning when his brother didn’t come out for breakfast and there was no noise from the room. His brother liked to sleep late, but not that late.
« I told my tia, it’s starting to get weird, » she said. She knocked on the door around 2pm, she said, and then pulled at it, but she found she was locked.
Finally, Mr. Garza walked around outside the house, pulled one of the broken air conditioners out of a window, and peered inside.
« I’ve seen it, stiff as a board, » she said as she sat in the shade just outside the room where her brother died. « I never got along very well with him, but it brought tears to his eyes, because he’s my brother, after all. »
Susan C. Beachy contributed to the research.