It's no secret that many people move to the Pacific Northwest to get away from the heat and humidity that plagues the rest of the country this time of year. Seattleites don't live in air conditioning so many were caught unprepared when record temperatures hit the area July 10 and July 11, when temperatures officially hit 97 degrees at SeaTac International Airport.
According to Joe Martin, case manager at the Pike Market Medical Clinic, the heat and the humidity can lead to more problems for the homeless and low-income people. For those living on the street, the heat can be a foe as much as cold, rain and wind. The Centers for Disease Control says that air conditioning is the number one protective factor against heat-related illness or death. Unfortunately for those living in a small one-room apartment a cheap table-fan from the local drugstore doesn't always do the trick.
Martin doesn't think the Clinic had any more clients in our July heat wave record heat, but says that it was "a stressful day."
"Over the 30 years I've been here, and with respect to the rain and the cold, hot weather seems to exacerbate problems,'' says Martin. "It's not scientific, but those folks who have mental problems get disoriented.''
According to the CDC, those at greatest risk during the heat include the mentally ill and those with chronic diseases. Those on prescription drugs and heavy alcohol users can also be affected. Extreme heat causes more deaths in the course of the year than hurricanes, lightning, tornadoes and earthquakes combined. Extreme heat is defined as when temperatures hover 10 degrees or more over historic averages. People suffer heat-related illness when their bodies are unable to compensate for the heat.
Fortunately, the homeless did have some options. City and King County libraries are air conditioned and the Center House in Seattle Center expanded hours for anyone who wanted to go inside and out of the heat. Pike Place Market also gave out water last week. Water is more beneficial in dealing with the heat than alcoholic and sugary beverages.
Traditionally, many homeless people will sleep outside this time of year eschewing a hot, sweaty shelter for the great outdoors. But that wasn't the case earlier in July as Operation Night Watch, the organization that assigns the homeless to various shelters each night, had record numbers of clients.
For some homeless, it was too hot to stay outside.
"We had 163 people on [July 11],'' says the Rev. Rick Reynolds, Night Watch's director. "That's a high for this time of year. Some of it (not sleeping inside) might be for safety reasons. People adapt different survival strategies.''
"We didn't have a great influx of patients (July 10 and July 11),'' says Susan Gregg-Hanson, a spokeswoman for Harborview Medical Center. "There were no heat-related or dehydration cases but there were two toddlers who fell out of windows and unfortunately one died.''
"The heat seems to intensify people's problems," says Martin. "They aren't used to this weather like they would be in Arizona and Nevada. People get disoriented. One of our nurses said it was a tough day'' on July 11.
"Some people (in the shelters) do get cranky,'' says Reynolds. "There's more of an edge. More people are frazzled.''