Blackout during Phoenix heat wave could kill thousands, leave half of residents in need of ER

By Nicholas Gerbis
Published: Friday, May 26, 2023 - 9:21pm
Updated: Friday, May 26, 2023 - 9:39pm

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A Phoenix skyline
Getty Images
The sun sets over Phoenix.

A multiday power outage during a heat wave could kill almost 13,000 Phoenicians and leave half the population vying for the city’s 3,000 emergency room beds due to heat stroke or other heat-related illnesses.

So says a paper in the journal Environmental Science and Technology that modeled heat and power conditions in Atlanta, Detroit and Phoenix.

“People know that if you have these sort of events — these compound, extreme heat, breakdown in infrastructure — bad things will happen, but we put numbers on this for the first time,” said senior author Matei Georgescu, director of Arizona State University's Urban Climate Research Center.

Power utilities have plans and backups to manage high loads and outages.

But as the Northeast Blackout of 2003 reminded us, Murphy’s Law remains in full effect. That event, which arose from a combination of tree branches and a power grid heavily loaded due to a heatwave, affected about 55 million people across eight U.S. states and Ontario, Canada.

Georgescu lived through the event when he still resided in the New York metropolitan area.

Matei Georgescu
Arizona State University
Matei Georgescu

“So I know very much what it's like to go through multiple days without electricity, without air conditioning,” he said. “The difference between that event and this event was that we did not have 40-45 degree Celsius — or 104-plus degree — weather.”

When the authors modelled Phoenix under both powered and blackout conditions, they found a two-day outage, followed by three days of gradual power restoration, would pose a health disaster for the AC-dependent Valley.

“If you have hundreds of thousands of people that need medical attention, and we only have 3,000 emergency room beds, that's a major, major problem,” said Georgescu.

He added that better managing such a catastrophic event requires advance preparation, discussion and coordination.

“What we're hoping is that this attracts attention, this attracts awareness and this allows for initiation of discussions at multiple levels of government, so that we can better plan for these sorts of things,” he said.

The paper, which was the culmination of a decade of interdisciplinary work between Georgia Tech, University of Michigan and ASU, also finds planting enough shade trees to cover half of Phoenix’s streets could drop deaths by 27%. Highly reflective roofs could reduce mortality by 66%.

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