With this summer’s warm temperatures expected to go beyond last year’s record-breaking highs, local governments are preparing for heat season like never before. Chatham County’s Department of Health recently rolled out their heat action plan — following a model meant to build plans between county agencies and community partners to combat extreme temperatures.

One of those community partners was the Heat Policy Innovation Hub at Duke’s Nicholas Institute, where Ashley Ward is the program’s director.

“We have been working over the last year with The North Carolina Office of Recovery and Resilience, The Nort Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, and The North Carolina State Climate Office to build out templates for counties in North Carolina to be able to complete Heat Action Plans,” said Ward.

The Heat Action Plan Toolkit was released in the late spring to help county governments in North Carolina prepare for the summer heat and one of the first counties to begin that work was Chatham County, which released its plan earlier in June. Commissioner Karen Howard spoke with 97.9 The Hill about why the county saw it as a critical step to take.

“You have to have a plan for how you deal with the direct and immediate impact of climate on individuals and communities,” said Howard. “And that’s what this Heat Action Plan does. It delineates what constitutes a heat emergency, and the different stages of that emergency.”

The three-phase plan ranges from a preparedness phase that focuses on community preparation, trainings, and awareness, up to the higher phases that include issuing health alerts, opening cooling centers, and activating transportation plans to those spaces.

“[The plan helps ensure] particularly our vulnerable populations — the elderly, people that work outdoors, people who live in uncooled homes — are getting this information quickly and reliably and know how to get to the cooling centers,” said Howard.

Orange County does not currently have a heat action plan, but many of the same strategies are embedded in the county’s emergency management plan. Sarah Pickhardt is Orange County’s Emergency Management Division Chief.

“We are seeing more extreme heat and more extreme cold in the wintertime,” she told 97.9 The Hill. “And so for us, part of our approach is acknowledging that this is, unfortunately, going to be our new normal. So what can we do to build resiliency in the community for this new normal? We are trying to share out places that are open day-to-day for the public to go in and get out of the heat, whether that’s the libraries, local county offices, community centers. There are a lot of places in the community that already exist.”

“It’s not just an emergency, right,” asked Hannah Tuckman, the Orange County emergency management planner. “All summer it’s going to be hot. So, we are really pushing this whole perspective and including all the partners that we can for this extreme heat. All summer we are pushing out the same message of what to do to stay cool, how to recognize what a heat emergency is, and where you can access those resources.”

Tuckman also discussed at what point the county would begin to provide extra resources.

“When the National Weather Service puts out an excessive heat warning, that’s when we hit that emergency phase for us,” she described. “That’s when those actions kick in. It goes based off the heat index. Where we are it’s a 110 degree ‘feels like’ temperature. When we hit that threshold, that’s when we know we will be looking at it from an emergency perspective.”

Ward reiterates the importance of county-level governments having a plan to address extreme heat.

“These are very important exercises for counties to go through,” she says. “For one, it helps everyone know what it is we need to do, when we need to do it, how we need to respond. But these plans are often used to determine the allocation of resources. It’s a great thing that we have prioritized having our local government step through these processes.”

While dealing with extreme summer heat may be the new normal, organized local response to that heat is something relatively new.

“When I travel all over the country,” says Ward, “I hear people say, ‘North Carolina Emergency Management is the best and we model what we’re doing after what you all have done in North Carolina.’ I think that this is another opportunity for North Carolina to lead in this space. As far as I know, we are the only state in the country that will have county-level heat action plans.”

Chatham County’s full heat action plan can be found here. Find a list of hot weather resources in Orange County here, as well as an interactive map with nearby cooling resources.

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