Pinal heat relief still hobbled by COVID

Jeff Kronenfeld
Water bottles and other drinks for distribution by the Pinal County Heat Relief Network.(Braden Biggs)

By Jeff Kronenfeld / NewsBreak Pinal County, AZ

(Pinal County, AZ) As a scorching heatwave baked much of Arizona over the last week, Pinal County offered sweaty residents some respite through heat refuges and hydration stations – even as many groups are still not able to offer the level of assistance they did prior to the pandemic. .

A joint effort between nonprofits, government bodies, and faith-based organizations, the Pinal County Heat Relief Network (PCHRN) distributes water and provides air-conditioned areas to those at risk of exposure to excessively high temperatures.

But COVID’s impacts still linger.

“We still are closed to the public,” said Lucy Rangel, housing programs manager for the Community Action Human Resources Agency.

“Now, if there's somebody out there, we'll bring them in, and we'll sit them strategically six feet from each other, but we just can't be open because we don't have the capacity to bring 10 to 15 people into our lobby, and that's what happened during COVID. Many of the agencies closed.”

CAHRA helps coordinate these efforts and directly assists the sweltering populace. The PCHRN typically operates from the beginning of May through the end of September, though increasing temperatures have forced the network to extend its operations.

“It's hot, and it just seems like it's getting hotter, and it's lasting a little bit longer,” said Rangel. “Today we’re at 108 or 110 degrees, and here we're almost in the middle of September. If we go into October with the same type of heat, we may have to provide these cooling and hydration stations a little bit longer.”

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) 2022 Arizona State Climate Summary found that the state’s average temperature had risen roughly 2.5 degrees since 1900.

Unfortunately, these dog days aren't turning tail anytime soon. NOAA projects the increase in average highs and extreme heat will continue. As thermometer readings climb, so do death tolls.

Though data for Pinal County was unavailable, neighboring Maricopa County has seen heat-caused and heat-related deaths increase over time. In 2021, Maricopa County recorded 552 heat-related deaths, more than doubling 2016’s numbers.

The fallout from the pandemic

COVID-19 hampered the PCHRN’s work, forcing cooling stations to close doors, though emergency responders and libraries continued to distribute water during lockdowns. Still, heat-related deaths spiked dramatically, and many groups are still not able to offer the level of assistance they did prior to the pandemic's outbreak.

A power outage in July further aggravated the threat of excessive heat. As a result, Rangel observed a roughly three-fold increase in demand for PCHRN services and other forms of support offered by CAHRA. Even with electricity now restored, the increased need has yet to abate.

How the PCHRN got started

The PCHRN’s origins stretch back several years to efforts by Robin Barker, a former vice mayor and city councilmember for Apache Junction, according to Braden Biggs, the former community programs manager for the United Way of Pinal County.

It began with Barker and the Genesis Project, a soup kitchen in Apache Junction, providing water bottles to homeless people during the summer months. Over time, the program grew.

“When the United Way got a hold of it, we started building it more and more,” Biggs said. “We also gained quite a bit of community partners from the faith-based world to various nonprofits, different businesses, and government entities. It was really collaborative. Anybody who wants in can be part of the effort to help the community.”

Biggs stated that the PCHRN was modeled on Maricopa County’s Heat Relief Network, which was created in 2005, according to Kelly Donnelly Williams, the director of human services for the Maricopa Association of Governments.

“After an excessive heat wave, more than a dozen individuals died within a very short period of time, and it was determined by our regional analytics division that many of those individuals were close to buildings that they could have gone inside if they had been allowed,” Donnelly Williams said.

“We do see quite a few of our unsheltered individuals using the Heat Relief Network as a way to get out of the heat during the day. We also have individuals who are landscapers, postal workers, and older adults who are living on a fixed income.”

Pinal County’s rural character offers unique challenges when temperatures rise for those without automobiles or airconditioned homes. However, thanks to the efforts of CAHRA and the many other members of the PCHRN, the region’s increasingly extreme heat is a little more bearable.

To learn where your nearest PCHRN location is or to get involved in the effort, please visit this map showing hydration stations, heat refuges, and drop-off locations in Pinal County.

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Jeff is an award-winning freelance journalist covering news, business, science and the arts. His work has been published in Discover Magazine, Vice, the Phoenix New Times and other outlets.

Tempe, AZ

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