Earlier this summer, as a brutal heat dome settled over Texas, the large pecan tree in my front yard started dropping limbs. Not twigs, mind you, but big, heavy limbs that would fall straight down with a thunk and a shoosh of dead leaves onto my front lawn. Every week or so, it would happen again. And every week, I’d haul a giant piece of an old, glorious tree, slowly dying of thirst, to the curb.
Most of Texas has recently broken a heat-related record in one way or another. Dallas reached a record high of 110 degrees Fahrenheit amid weeks of unrelenting 100 or near 100 degrees days. Austin made history with 45 consecutive days of temperatures more than 100 degrees; El Paso hit 44 days. Houston hit 109 degrees just as kids were getting back to school. Coastal areas of the state are in the National Weather Service’s highest category for drought.
Heat and drought are slow disasters, ones we don’t jump to respond to, like we do for a hurricane or a tornado. The destruction is piecemeal—a buckled road here, a broken water main there, water tables and aquifers that aren’t filling as fast as we drain them. In this kind of disaster, bodies are damaged and lives are lost each day, day after day.
Heat is normal in Texas, but what is does shouldn’t be normalized. Our climate has changed. It is changing still. For all the ferocity of this slow bake, we do not treat heat as the natural disaster it is; we underestimate its damage to our health, infrastructure, water, housing and other basics we need to survive. Heat is a powerful and destructive force, and we have to treat it as such.
And while we worship the sun in Texas, this sun is a vengeful god. It is early September, and minus one blissful thunderstorm a few days ago, there are literally no clouds anywhere. I can feel the backs of my knees burn and I can see my otherwise monochrome shoulders freckle if I’m outside for a bit too long. This sun tests my parenting skills: Do I let my kids, antsy and cranky from being inside, out to play in the afternoon heat? If I miss a spot when dousing them in sunscreen, will they suffer?
To most of the U.S., this kind of heat for this long is a bit abstract, even as cities more used to blizzards than heat waves have grappled with their own short stretches of 100 degrees. Our heat wave officially started in early June. We’ve been asked to reduce our electrical use, so I’ve shuttered my attic office and oh-so-quaintly work by sunlight in my dining room. We’ve had the power go out, and I’ve wondered if I’d missed an announcement about rolling blackouts (a dead tree that fell on a power line nearby was the likely culprit). We’ve been asked to reduce our water use—scratch that, told to—and rightfully fined if our sprinklers run on the wrong days. I had to replace an air conditioner motor that just couldn’t keep up and conked out. And a couple of weeks ago, a large crack appeared in one of my walls. My parched foundation is giving up the ghost.
These are the small losses of a very privileged person, but added together, what they tell me is that we are simply not equipped to weather this kind of weather every summer, as the waves get longer and the domes get hotter. Our electrical grid in Texas is famous for failing. And when my handyman texts me, asking to postpone work around my house because his day job is outside and he is literally burned out, when the delivery driver thanks me profusely for the Gatorade I offer him out of the bag he’s just dropped at my doorstep, when I see people get into arguments over walking dogs on hot sidewalks, I see how life at this temperature is stressful, harmful and terrifying.
Is there political will around heat? Jesse Keenan, who studies climate change and infrastructure at Tulane University, told me yes. And no. The technology to fix some of these infrastructure issues is there, and cities are trying to adopt them. Some of the fixes are alarmingly simple, like painting buildings white or making roads lighter when we rebuild them so they reflect heat. But others, like updating water lines, are expensive and time-consuming. You have to do things bit by bit, when you’d rather just rip it all out and replace it at once, he explained to me. He praised cities in Arizona that have responded to their water shortage by halting development and curbing sprawl. But overall, he called our heat problems a “slow violence,” and told me that costs for things like water are going to skyrocket soon. Infrastructure doesn’t energize the electorate, we’ve been told. But if Texas is going to be livable for our kids and grandkids, if the southern half of the U.S. in general is going to survive, infrastructure is going to have to become Real Housewives–level gripping.
Just before school started, I took my kids on a mini vacation to the Texas hill country. I figured, if we were going to roast, we could at least do it in a different part of the state. Digital signs on the highway warned of extreme fire risk. One popular swimming hole was completely dry. Another ached for water so badly that we could see multiple bathtub lines on the cypress trees lining its banks. A pond that sources a big river had docks hanging several feet above the water line, and the waterfall at the peak of a nearby state park had run dry. My older child, miserable in the heat at 10 A.M. (I know, bad mommy), looked into small pools of water that dotted the rock faces usually submerged by the fall. Inside were fish, trapped when the water level receded. She asked me what would happen to them. I told her the truth: if the water didn’t come back soon, many would die.
Heat is the number one weather-related killer in the U.S. It takes a while to confirm heat-related deaths, but so far, according to my county health department’s spokesperson, there have been 13, in addition to the nearly 1,800 people who have been treated for heat-related illness. We still have a ways to go before this wave truly breaks. And right now, in Texas, far too many of us are fish in a shrinking rock pool.
This is an opinion and analysis article, and the views expressed by the author or authors are not necessarily those of Scientific American.