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Dozens of groups urge FEMA to treat extreme heat as a ‘major disaster’

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Dozens of environmental, labor and health care groups united on Monday Submit a petition Urge the Federal Emergency Management Agency to declare extreme heat and wildfire smoke a “major disaster” on par with flooding and tornadoes.

The petition is aimed at pushing the federal government to help state and local communities struggling with the growing costs of climate change.

If the petition is accepted, FEMA would allocate funds to help local governments prepare for heat and wildfire smoke, such as building cooling centers or installing air filtration systems in schools. The agency could also provide help during emergencies, such as paying for water supplies, health screenings for vulnerable populations and boosting electricity use.

“A major disaster declaration really opens up the broadest source of funding available to FEMA,” said Jean Su, a senior attorney at the environmental group Center for Biological Diversity and lead author of the petition. “State and local governments are woefully under-equipped and under-funded to even respond to emergency measures.”

The support from major labor groups, including the AFL-CIO and the Service Employees International Union, is part of a broader strategy by unions to protect tens of millions of people who work outdoors or in unair-conditioned environments during hot weather.Require employers to protect workers Extreme temperatures. The White House has urged Labor Department officials, which oversees the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, to issue draft heat regulations this summer. But major business and industry groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce oppose any new requirements.

Labor groups and worker rights organizations hope that if FEMA’s petition is accepted, employers will face more pressure to address heat issues in the workplace.

“If extreme heat and wildfire smoke are designated as major hazards, then everyone has to pull together,” said Christine Bolaños, communications director for the Worker Defense Project, a nonprofit focused on labor rights. She said the major hazard classification would force OSHA to make heat worker protections a priority.

The move highlights growing concerns among lawmakers, activists and labor groups about the impacts of extreme heat. Last June, Arizona Democratic Rep. Ruben Gallego Proposing legislation Declaring extreme heat a major disaster under the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s classification. The bill, which has not yet advanced, is co-sponsored by 11 Democrats and one Republican.

The National Weather Service says heat waves already kill more people each year than hurricanes, floods and tornadoes combined. Yet the tools to deal with the impacts of extreme temperatures are still being built from the ground up.

“There is no institution, tool, dataset, etc. in the world that can help communities cope with extreme heat on this scale,” said Cathy Bowman-McLeod, CEO of Climate Resilience for All, a nonprofit organization dedicated to addressing extreme heat issues around the world.

FEMA has rejected several similar requests over the years to declare some past heat waves as major disasters. These include California As record-breaking triple-digit temperatures rose over California in October 2022, Gov. Gavin Newsom said the state’s climate “sets a precedent of assessing discrete events and impacts, not seasonal or general atmospheric conditions.”

The 1988 Stafford Act, which authorizes the federal government to declare a disaster or emergency, does not explicitly include extreme heat in the list of 16 causes of disaster. But the petition from labor and environmental groups argues that the agency has declared the coronavirus outbreak a major disaster even though it is not on the list, setting a precedent the groups hope to exploit. If FEMA again denies the request, the petitioners plan to sue over the matter.

Declaring an extreme heat event a major disaster can present challenges for FEMA. Generally, the agency declares disasters based on damage to uninsured public infrastructure and the number of fatalities. But during a heat wave, property damage is not a major risk, and counting heat-related deaths is difficult, in part because death certificates do not always reflect the role of heat in killing people.

Brock Long, who served as FEMA administrator during the Trump administration, said that during disasters, communities that are not prepared for extreme events sometimes receive more funding than those that are prepared.

Mr. Long said he worried that adding new items to FEMA’s list of major disasters would be like “tying new parts to a rusty old bicycle frame.”

“It’s time for Congress to sit down with large infrastructure owners and community leaders to discuss how to redesign a system that makes sense,” Mr. Long said. “Under the current system, we will never be able to address climate change or the threats to the future.”

If FEMA accepts the petition, it would initiate a process to amend its rules to list extreme heat and wildfire smoke as possible major hazards and accept public comment.

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