When the torrential rain stopped on Friday afternoon, Laura Lowry could see steam rising from the wet sidewalk. She was on her porch in Houston’s Fifth Ward neighborhood, desperate for relief from the relentless humidity and 91-degree heat. The air conditioner in her home worked, but she and her husband, dependent on disability benefits, could not afford to operate it.
The lack of fresh air wasn’t simply a matter of discomfort for Mrs Lowry, 73. She was dangerous. Just a few weeks ago, there had been a terrifying moment when she was so exhausted by the heat after waiting outside a food pantry that she slumped over in her porch chair as soon as she got home. « I couldn’t get in, » she said. « I felt like I was passing out. »
Another dangerous heatwave that swept through the south and west this week has posed particular dangers for older people, who are among the most vulnerable to such extreme conditions.
Meteorologists expect the scorching spell to continue through next week, with heat indexes climbing well over 100 degrees across a large swath of the South, from Texas through the Gulf Coast and into Florida.
It created suffering and also underlined the recognition that health risks will intensify as a changing climate brings higher temperatures that are likely to last for longer periods.
« This can be deadly, especially in these vulnerable populations, » said Natalie Christian, assistant professor of geriatrics at Tulane University School of Medicine in New Orleans.
« I certainly don’t think it’s a problem that’s going to go away, » he added. « It’s something we’re going to have to respond to and we’re going to have to respond to more broadly. »
The aging process makes older bodies generally less able to handle extreme heat, doctors say.
« They’re at extremely high risk of heat stroke and death, » said James H. Diaz, professor of occupational and environmental health sciences in the Louisiana State University School of Public Health, of seniors. « When we look at what happens with these heatwaves, most of the deaths occur in the homebound elderly. »
In many communities, including New Orleans and Houston, officials have opened cooling centers and shelters in recent weeks, with air-conditioned shuttle buses meandering through neighborhoods, picking up people. There are also programs to supply or repair air conditioners or help people who are having trouble affording electricity bills.
But in some of the hottest places in the South, there was a sense on Friday that heat was inevitable.
« There is nothing we can do about this heat, only God can do something, » said David Flores, 81, who lives in an apartment in Miami’s Little Havana neighborhood. The temperature approached 90 degrees on Friday, and the heat index — a measure of what temperature actually feels like — it varied from 105 to 109 degrees. With a single wall unit in her apartment, she said, « I leave the bedroom door open so it cools off in my little living room. »
Victor Hugo Grajales, 66, said he was trying to avoid leaving his air-conditioned home in Miami. « Young people can handle it, they have the energy, » he said. « But the elderly are suffering. »
Older bodies tend to retain more heat than younger ones, and as people age, they produce less sweat, making it more difficult to regulate body temperature and dissipate heat. « It can be more difficult for even healthy older adults to tell if they are dehydrated or overheated, » said Dr. Christian.
Common health problems, including heart problems, high blood pressure and diabetes, put older people at greater risk of heat stress-related consequences, medical experts said. Medications also have an effect: Some medications can increase the amount of heat generated in a person’s internal organs, affect how much heat a person can tolerate, or interfere with sweating.
Signs of heat stress include feelings of tiredness and possibly headaches, dizziness, and flushed skin. « Your skin may feel clammy and clammy, your pupils are dilated, » Dr. Diaz said. « You may sweat a little, but not enough. »
If a situation is progressing to heatstroke, a person’s body temperature will rise, reaching 103 degrees or more. « The patient will stop sweating altogether, » Dr. Diaz said, and he may lose consciousness.
« This is a 911 emergency, » he said. “Now you are dealing with heatstroke. Your death rate is approaching 50%.
Euradell Williams, 71, had triple bypass surgery last year and has diabetes. She knows the heat affects her blood pressure. Try to be cautious, but living on the South Side of Houston means heat is unavoidable, especially since most days she takes the bus to a community hub over an hour away, where she crafts, swims in the indoor pool and socialise. .
« When I leave here I’m exhausted, » she said at the center on Friday. « I just slumped over on the bus after just a minute of being out there. »
Familiarity with the heat has led to coping strategies. Nati Guerrera, 88, from Miami, she only leaves the house at night. Virginia Rivera, 77, checks her palm trees at her retirement community in downtown Orlando, Florida.
« You see the trees blowing in the breeze, you can go out and have fun, » said Ms. Rivera, who has a heart rate monitor and recently suffered a stroke. « If you open the door and the trees don’t move, stay inside. »
The particularly intense heat this year « brings aches and pains, » he noted, adding, « It just cuts your air and you can’t breathe. »
In another Orlando neighborhood, Veronica King, 67, said she keeps her air conditioner on even though she can’t afford it. « I have to figure out how to cover that bill, » she said, adding that she relies on machines to help her breathe. « When she’s hot, I can’t breathe. »
In Houston, where the heat index could reach 107 degrees on Sunday, Mrs Lowry and her husband Jasper, 72, compromised. They have two cars, none with working air conditioning. But they figured they could at least save the money to fix it in one of their own.
« I used to go out here and work in the garden and mow the grass and work on the car, » said Mr Lowry, who sits in the wheelchair he’s needed since suffering a stroke. « But I can’t do it anymore because it’s too hot. »
He stood outside, watching over the man he’d hired to fix his car, waiting for a chance to start it up and—finally—get a breath of fresh air.
Abigail Geiger contributed reporting from Orlando, e Veronica Zaragovia from Miami