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Three stories from the hottest month ever

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

Here is how U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres started his press conference on climate change at the end of July.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ANTONIO GUTERRES: Humanity is in the hot seat.

DETROW: And you can think of that as an extremely grim dad joke because humanity really hasn't ever been this hot. The U.N.'s World Meteorological Organization is still analyzing the final numbers, but it's pretty likely that July was the hottest month in terms of the average global temperature in recorded history. Along with that heat has come a steady stream of climate-driven disasters.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GUTERRES: For vast parts of North America, Asia, Africa and Europe, it's a cruel summer.

DETROW: Here in the U.S., there's been historically bad flooding...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: The capital of Vermont tonight underwater - shut down most of the day, authorities fearing a nearby dam may not hold...

DETROW: ...Cities blanketed in smoke...

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "CBS EVENING NEWS")

NORAH O'DONNELL: Wildfires burning in eastern Canada are causing dangerous air quality conditions for millions of Americans from New England all the way down to Washington, D.C.

DETROW: ...And heat wave after heat wave.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: In Death Valley, Calif., temperatures hit 125 degrees today, just five degrees shy from the hottest temp recorded on Earth.

DETROW: As Guterres put it...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GUTERRES: Climate change is here, it is terrifying, and it is just the beginning. The era of global warming has ended. The era of global boiling has arrived.

DETROW: And since this really is just the beginning, since summers like this one and worse can be expected in the years ahead, for our Sunday cover story, we thought it would be worth checking in with some of the people who lived through July's climate-driven disasters to see what they were like firsthand, to hear how they've coped and what they'd like to see work better the next time disaster strikes. And we're going to start in Phoenix, Ariz., with Dr. Frank LoVecchio who works in the emergency department at Valleywise Health Medical Center. When we caught up with him after 31 straight days with highs at 110 degrees or hotter, the city had finally gotten a break, kind of.

What is a reprieve like in Phoenix in August this year?

FRANK LOVECCHIO: One-oh-nine. You know, our high of the day was 109. But more importantly, at night, because it rained, we were able to dip into the 80s.

DETROW: By contrast, in July, the average low temperature stayed above 90 degrees. And the relentless heat sent a lot of people to Dr. LoVecchio's emergency room.

LOVECCHIO: About two years ago or so, we might see one case a week, maybe two cases of severe heat stroke. Now, during this past month or so, on a slow day, we'd see three. On a busier day, we'd see, you know, six or seven of them.

DETROW: Wow.

LOVECCHIO: And this is a patient that needs full core pref (ph). We're aggressive about what we do, which is put them in an ice bath. So you use a body bag 'cause it's nonpermeable, and you put a patient in a body bag. You know, they come in unconscious and comatose with temperatures over 107, and cover them in ice, bury them with ice and water.

DETROW: I want to go back to something you said a few minutes ago. You said a slow day over the past month or so was typically what you saw over the course of a week in previous years when it comes to the number of people coming into the hospital with very serious heat stroke. Is that right?

LOVECCHIO: Yes, that's true. And we also have a burn center - one of the busiest burn centers. And we certainly see many contact burns. It turns out that when the temperature is over a hundred degrees, the asphalt can get up to 160 degrees. Another way to say that is if you walk across the street barefoot, you will definitely get at least a second, if not a third degree burn. And those cases - many times people fall. They have burns all over. Our burn center's bursting at the seams with patients who had heat illness and have a potentially life-threatening burn.

DETROW: I mean, you talk about the higher numbers coming in. Are you seeing the type of burnout in your ER, at your hospital, that you saw at the peak of COVID because of this heat?

LOVECCHIO: To be honest, yes. When we see these patients, many times they go to the intensive care unit, and the intensive care unit was full. Many of these patients are homeless. So if you have mild heat illness and you're homeless, you're just waiting in the ER. We have a policy not to just discharge somebody - if they had, like, a heat illness issue, not to just discharge them back to the street, you know, where it's, you know, hot, etc. And there have been patients in our emergency department that were waiting three days for a shelter bed. And it's not quite emergency medicine if there's just somebody who just really doesn't need anything, just a place to stay. It's more related to the social systems and the social, you know, faults that we have right now.

DETROW: Dr. Frank LoVecchio in Phoenix.

So Arizona's problem was a hot July. Vermont's problem was a wet one.

MICHELLE EDDLEMAN MCCORMICK: My phone started getting alerts about road closures and other parts of the county, and then I'm getting, you know, alerts for a flash flood warning. And then it just suddenly sunk in that this was getting bad quickly.

DETROW: Michelle Eddleman McCormick is a general manager at the Marshfield Village Store in a rural area of Vermont. And that's where she was on July 10 as two months' worth of rain fell on already saturated soil in just a couple of days. It wasn't long before roads started to fail, bridges collapsed - all in the type of intense and concentrated rainstorms that we know will become more common and more powerful in a hotter climate. Homes were inundated. A landslide took out the village's water and sewer system.

EDDLEMAN MCCORMICK: We were without any running water for about 11 days, pushing 12. And then, of course, there was a boil water notice after that.

DETROW: Without water and with road access to the outside world largely cut off, the Marshfield Village Store, on high ground, right in the center of town, became a sort of pop-up relief hub.

EDDLEMAN MCCORMICK: We opened up a distribution center with cleaning supplies, relief supplies, food and water in the neighbor's lawn right next to the store.

DETROW: And all of this was almost second nature for McCormick because she had been through something like this before. She did relief work in New Orleans' Lower Ninth Ward right after Katrina. And after that, she lived in Naples, Fla., through two more big hurricanes.

EDDLEMAN MCCORMICK: And so I'd actually moved up to Marshfield, Vt., to try and create a future for my - you know, my children and other folks in a place that is slated to be that much more climate resilient.

DETROW: And yet you found yourself dealing with this catastrophic flooding. I mean, did that change the way that you feel about whether that feels like a safe place to be?

EDDLEMAN MCCORMICK: Actually - for me, it actually reaffirmed that this is where I need to be.

DETROW: Why is that?

EDDLEMAN MCCORMICK: Because there is such a built-in level of resilience here and a culture of mutual aid. Everything that, you know, happened in this town was a result of people in Marshfield helping to take care of people in Marshfield and our volunteer government.

DETROW: And that gets to another question I want to ask you. Like, extreme weather is clearly going to continue. There will be more flooding in the future. Is there anything local or federal government could do to make this process better the next time around?

EDDLEMAN MCCORMICK: For the federal response, I think this many years after Hurricane Katrina, I'm still shocked at the levels of, I guess, ineptitude. There's really no other way to describe it.

DETROW: And that probably felt personal on both ends to you, given your work and your time in the Lower Ninth Ward.

EDDLEMAN MCCORMICK: Absolutely. I mean, a clear example was that Day 2, I knew that we needed to start planning for showers because it's hot, it's muggy. People are working on their flood-damaged homes. They don't have any water. So, you know, I told our emergency manager we should get showers. He agreed, and he put the request in. They said they would have to source it. It took the National Guard to bring in these giant, expensive water buffalo. Then FEMA had to figure out how to get the water into the water buffalo 'cause they didn't want to transport them full. And then it took a private contractor to bring in the actual shower units. And all three of these things did not end up in the same place at the same time, and nobody could figure out still how to pressurize it.

DETROW: And then I assume by then everyone had figured out how to take a shower in some - one way or another.

EDDLEMAN MCCORMICK: Yeah. I mean, it used to be - the commentary after Katrina was that it took the U.S. government 10 days to figure out how to get a bottle of water into a major metropolitan area in the United States. And it appears as though that dynamic has not changed a whole lot.

DETROW: Michelle Eddleman McCormick, general manager at Marshfield Village Store, a worker-owned co-op. We did reach out to FEMA, and a spokesperson told us that in Marshfield, FEMA was only tasked to provide bulk water for state showers and that FEMA was never requested to provide any other resources.

Now, if you were on the East Coast this summer, you could probably see or smell the smoke from the wildfires burning in Canada. And given that, you probably grasped just how bad things were close to the wildfires, in places like the Cree Nation of Nemaska, an Indigenous community in Quebec.

WILL NICHOLLS: The smoke was so bad there that they didn't know whether it was night or day at times.

DETROW: That's Will Nicholls, a Cree from Mistissini, which has also been choked in smoke this summer. He's the editor-in-chief of Nation News.

When did the forest fires in northern Quebec start this summer?

NICHOLLS: Oh, God. It seems so long ago.

DETROW: Yeah.

NICHOLLS: It was beginning of June.

DETROW: He thinks the provincial government should have done more to protect the hunting camps that many Cree rely on for their livelihoods.

NICHOLLS: And our camps aren't simple camps. They're actually houses and whatnot. And you have ATVs there. You have snowmobiles. You have generators, a home. That's all gone.

DETROW: How long is it going to take to recover from all of that?

NICHOLLS: That's - I'm not sure. It's going to be years. You're talking - the size of these blazes are, you know, in millions of hectares. You're talking about animal life that's going to have a hard time recovering from that. With the Crees, about a third of our population trap, hunt and gather. We have treaties that we've made that guarantee our way of life. My question is, why aren't you doing something to ensure that?

DETROW: That was Will Nicholls, a member of the Cree Nation of Mistissini in Quebec. He was living with the smoke of wildfires. We also heard from Michelle Eddleman McCormick about intense flooding in Vermont, and Frank LoVecchio about trying to keep people alive who had spent too much time out in the deadly heat of Phoenix. Just three stories of many more from what was likely the hottest month ever recorded. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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