In Phoenix, Heat Becomes a Brutal Test of Endurance

Rachelle Williams was sick of delivering mail in Indiana winters, so in 2019, she put in for a transfer to Arizona and joined the flood of newcomers who have made Phoenix one of the country’s fastest-growing cities.

She was questioning her move this week as the temperature hit 110 degrees for an 11th straight day on Monday, with no end in sight. Ms. Williams wore long sleeves, black gloves and a broad-brimmed visor with flaps covering her neck to deflect the sun as she walked her route. But no matter how much water or electrolyte solution she drank, her legs tingled and her head spun.

“I don’t even know how I do it,” Ms. Williams, 35, said.

Summers in Phoenix are now a brutal endurance match. As the climate warms, forecasters say that dangerous levels of heat crank up earlier in the year, last longer — often well past Halloween — and lock America’s hottest big city in a sweltering straitjacket.

In triple-digit heat, monkey bars singe children’s hands, water bottles warp and seatbelts feel like hot irons. Devoted runners strap on headlamps to go jogging at 4 a.m., when it is still only 90 degrees, come home drenched in sweat and promptly roll down the sun shutters. Neighborhoods feel like ghost towns at midday, with rumbling rooftop air-conditioners offering the only sign of life.

Jose Manuel Guzmán, of the Salvation Army Emergency Disaster Services, helps to close a hydration and cooling center for the day in Phoenix on Monday.Credit…Adriana Zehbrauskas for The New York Times

A relentless heat wave is broiling the Southwest, with some 50 million people across the United States now facing dangerous temperatures. Forecasters say that the current streak of consecutive 110-degree days may end up being the longest Phoenix has ever seen, potentially breaking an 18-day record set in 1974.

Arizona’s woes have been amplified this summer by the delay of monsoons that sweep up from the Gulf of Mexico and help quench tinder-dry deserts and mountainsides. The “heat island” effect of Phoenix’s growing urban footprint means that nighttime also now swelters. The low temperature dipped only to 91 degrees before dawn on Tuesday.

All of this has added up to an ultramarathon of sweat — one that is testing whether Phoenix can adapt to a new reality of longer, deadlier heat waves at a time of water shortages and soaring housing costs that have pushed record numbers of people to sleep on baking streets and forced others to choose between paying rent or air-conditioning bills.

“We haven’t even gotten to the worst,” said Stacey Sosa, 19, a fashion-design student who grew up in Phoenix, adding that she was bracing for months of heat. “We’re just starting out.”

Heat is often described as an invisible disaster — one that leaves few visible scars like the floods ravaging towns in Vermont and upstate New York but that kills far more people every year than hurricanes, tornadoes or wildfires.

A family on vacation in Phoenix prepares for a boat trip on the Salt River on Monday.Credit…Adriana Zehbrauskas for The New York Times

Last year, 425 people died of heat-related causes in Maricopa County, which encompasses about 4.5 million people in Phoenix and its suburbs. It was a record high death toll, and a 25 percent increase over the previous year. Most of the victims were homeless or elderly. Phoenix’s homeless population has grown by 70 percent over the past six years, to more than 9,600, according to a census count this year.

The number of extreme heat days is also growing. In the early 1900s, Phoenix averaged five days a year with temperatures of 110 degrees or higher, according to Erinanne Saffell, the state’s climatologist. In recent years, the city has sweltered through an average of 27 110-degree days a year.

Phoenix has tried to confront the crisis by setting up a first-in-the-nation city office dedicated to heat. It efforts include planting trees in shadeless neighborhoods, resurfacing heat-absorbing streets with more reflective pavement and handing out towels, water and emergency heat supplies.

In Washington, Representative Ruben Gallego, a Democrat from Phoenix, and other Western lawmakers have introduced legislation that would require federal emergency managers to treat heat waves like other natural disasters.

This summer, Phoenix is running 62 cooling centers and water stations, and has set up “respite centers” that offer people — many of them homeless — a place to rest and sleep during the day.

“Even if our summers are longer and hotter, that doesn’t mean people have to suffer,” said David Hondula, the director of Phoenix’s Office of Heat Response and Mitigation.

Mia, 9, watches TV in an air-conditioned room at a community center in Phoenix on Monday.Credit…Adriana Zehbrauskas for The New York Times

But across the city, a loose collection of volunteers and community groups say official outreach efforts have failed to help many homeless and low-income people. So they deliver water, ice and electrolyte packets to homeless encampments, check on older residents in mobile homes and hand out slow cookers so people who don’t want to fire up the stove can still make dinner.

On Monday morning, as the temperature arced past 100 degrees, Jeffrey Elliott, 36, a volunteer with Feed Phoenix, a community group, heaved three water bottles and 100 pounds of ice into the back of his car and headed out to make his deliveries. He moved to Phoenix from Atlanta two months ago, and said he did not know whether his actions were actually helping. But he said he felt compelled to do something.

“Can you imagine being that hot and miserable?” he said. “It’s like walking around in a blow-dryer.”

He stopped beside a spit of grass near an interstate where six people were clumped in the meager shade of a mesquite tree. Fifty feet away, in the full sun, a friend of theirs who had been using fentanyl had fallen asleep under a reflective windshield cover.

Phoenix says its heat-relief centers serve about 1,600 people a day, but several homeless people said in interviews that they did not know where to find a cooling center — or did not realize they even existed. The city has created online maps showing each location, but homeless people said their phones were often dead or got easily fried in the heat.

Jeffrey Elliott, a volunteer with a local community group, delivering ice in Phoenix on Monday.Credit…Adriana Zehbrauskas for The New York Times

Robert Jefferson, 47, said he was willing to take his chances sleeping on the hot streets because being inside a shelter taxed his mental health. He was frustrated that the park’s bathrooms were locked, preventing him from even washing his hands.

“What do they expect us to do?” he asked.

By noon, Perry Park, in a working-class Latino neighborhood on the east side of town, was eerily quiet. A few weeks earlier, the public pool had been bursting with children and families, but it had shut down for the summer — a symptom of the city’s struggles to hire enough trained pool managers.

After two years of Covid-related disruptions, 18 of Phoenix’s 29 public pools opened this year, but an analysis by The Arizona Republic found many of those that remained closed were in neighborhoods with high poverty rates. At a community center across the street from Perry Pool, several children said they could not understand why theirs was empty.

Mia, 9, said she had loved the pool, especially because she could not be outside in the 110-degree heat, which gave her “a really weird stomach feeling.” Adriely, 13, said she had loved being able to walk from her house to the pool.

Outside of her summer job teaching dance classes to younger children at the community center, Adriely said she mostly felt confined to stay inside on 110-degree days. Arizona’s snowbirds and families in wealthier neighborhoods can slip away for the summer, but Adriely said her parents and others in the neighborhood had to work.

“You can’t really do anything,” she said. “I’m just trying to survive.”

Empty pools at Perry Park in Phoenix on Monday.Credit…Adriana Zehbrauskas for The New York Times
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