Nearby on the same June day, in a small home behind his sister’s house, 67-year-old Jorge Sanchez suffered the heat with nothing more than a fan to cool him, and then succumbed to temperatures that reached 113 degrees. A wave of extreme heat also overcame another man, still unidentified by the authorities, who parked his truck on a busy residential street with its hazard lights flashing, and died.
In all, 10 people died from heat-related illnesses within the city limits of Laredo between June 15 and July 3, a toll unheard-of in this heat-accustomed corner of Texas. Though public health officials in several states said a full and accurate count of how many people have died from the recent bout of heat is weeks away, if not months, Laredo’s experience suggested that the eventual 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 leading weather-related cause of death. 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 nonresidents, a figure that includes migrants crossing the state’s harsh terrain. During the heat wave in Webb County, at least two migrants were found dead on local ranches, according to the sheriff, Martin Cuellar.
The superheated dome of high atmospheric pressure that has been pressing down on much of the country will probably stay in place for a few more days at least, forecasters said, pushing temperatures to dangerous heights from parts of California all the way to Florida. And the temperature readings tell only part of the story, public health officials cautioned, because humid air worsens the heat, making it much more difficult for the body to cool down. And in cities like Laredo, the air can grow even hotter as the sun bakes the pavement, with little respite at night.
Around the country, public health officials have begun thinking of new ways to track and respond to heat-related illnesses, in order to better protect residents, particularly those whose jobs require them to work outside. In Louisiana, the state began in April to track in real time the number of people in hospital emergency rooms because of the heat — a system akin to one used during the pandemic to stay on top of Covid-19 outbreaks. Similar medical surveillance systems have been rolled out in Virginia, and the California legislature has approved creating one there.