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Intense Heat Has Lasting Impact Across U.S.


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Heat in the summertime is usually not news, but this year is more than a little out of the ordinary. The first six months of 2012 is already on the books as the warmest half-year on record according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

A heat wave that gripped much of the Midwest and the East for more than a week finally broke on Sunday, but the relentless heat forced outdoor workers to shift their schedules when they could. Farmers and ranchers scrambled to salvage crops and protect livestock. More than a few people noted that climate scientists forecast generally hotter summers from now on and vowed to move to somewhere cooler.

If this kind of heat is what we can now expect, how does that change your job or your plans? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Just click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, ghost relationships, people we connect with but never meet. But we begin with Scott "Bronc" Barrows, he's on the phone from WaKeeney, Kansas. He's director of the Golden Prairie Extension District, which is part of the extension system at Kansas State University, and it's good of you to be with us today.

SCOTT BARROWS: Thank you, Neal, appreciate it very much.

CONAN: And I guess one of the major problems there is with cattle in the heat. How are the animals holding up?

BARROWS: Well, you know, we can withstand some heat. Where I'm at in Kansas, we're more central, kind of out in the open prairie area a bit. We usually have some amount of breeze. Our biggest factor that's starting to affect is water supply.

And just like humans, or cattle or any other mammal, you have to have water. That's the most important, over food supply. So we've got a lot of range country that ranchers who have been here 30, 40, 50 years have never seen areas going dry. And we are really dealing with some significant amounts of - lack of water just to water and maintain the livestock.

And what water is available, some of that isn't of quality. We're starting to deal with some issues from that. It's not the good, pure, clean drinking water that these cattle, you know, normally have, a fresh water supply.

CONAN: And lack of water usually means lack of grass, too.

BARROWS: Exactly, and, you know, where we're at in Western Kansas, last year we had a tremendous drought. And there was some - well, in fact there was complete, 100-percent failed, for example, summer wheat crop. Now, we had some early spring rains, but we're still way under our normal rainfall, but we got some cool-season grasses to grow.

But we're what we call short-grass country, and that buffalo grass has never taken off. It's just laying there dormant, and we're out of grass, and so what really faces our ranchers in this country is last year with the drought that we have, they managed through that, probably culled the lower one-third of the cow crop off and early-weaned some calves.

Now we're coming back with the same issue, year two, and instead of early weaning - we're early-weaning calves, but instead of trying to cull another third, we're going to have some herd liquidation issues.

CONAN: So people selling off their cattle, I guess getting out of the business.

BARROWS: Totally, yeah, and, you know, the thing about it is, the local livestock barns have been - normally don't operate in July. And there's cattle coming to town on a weekly basis. And so summer months is when they have a sale once every two weeks, once every three weeks, and now they're having sales every week, and it's just because there's no grass. The producer doesn't - the farmer, the rancher, we have had no rainfall.

You know, and we're in a climate of less than 25 inches of rainfall annually. So a big difference, you know, in terms of our climate to a lot of other places within the United States. And so, these cattle, you know, and the people that are buying them, we're weaning the calves - early-weaning the calves. They're going to a background yard.

And the cows are going to slaughter. There's no grass to turn them back out on. And we - there is one outfit coming up out of Texas, which droughts out a year ago and buying a few cows, but they're still not out of that problem that they had a year ago, in 2011, either, so...

CONAN: And as people look at last summer and this summer, and, well, everybody knows the general outlook, for the next four years anyway. What are people...?

BARROWS: Well, the outlook, I mean, you know, if you look at the agriculture forecasts, there's money to be made in the cow/calf sector. You know, it looks good because cow numbers are down nationwide. It just happens to be that we're in a location, and the heat and the drought stress that we've actually hit it two years in a row, it's not going to let some of these farmers or ranchers be a part of that industry.

We just don't have - we just don't have the feedstuffs. We don't have - the grass isn't growing, we haven't had the rainfall. And, you know, even if we do get a nice one- or two-inch rain, we really need a rain - and we do so much in terms of conservation and preservation - we need a hard rain to run off of some of this land so that we can put some water back in some stock farm ponds and ranch ponds, you know, so that we get some water reserves again.

CONAN: Well, what's it like today?

BARROWS: It's cooler today, not too bad, I bet we'll get to the high 90s, very respectable. But, you know, we joke about that - anything when we see the 90s, when we've been at 114, you know, Hill City is just 20 miles away, and two days in a row, you know, it was the nation's high.

So, you drop that temperature just a little bit, and we get under 100, we're happy. So what we need and we didn't get, and there was some rainfall in parts of Western Kansas. We did not get any rain, and that's what we really need.

CONAN: Scott "Bronc" Barrows, thanks very much for your time. We wish you some rain.

BARROWS: Thank you, appreciate it.

Bronc Barrows, director of the Golden Prairie Extension District, part of the Kansas State University extension system. We want to hear from those of you who've been experiencing the heat. How has that affected your job, your business and your plans? 800-989-8255. Email is talk@npr.org. And we'll begin with Jason(ph), Jason with us from Grand Rapids.

JASON: Oh, thank you, thank you.

CONAN: Go ahead, Jason, you're on the air.

JASON: Oh, I'm sorry about that. I'm getting gas right now. Thank you, Neal, I'm a big fan of your show. Basically, we have been hit very hard here in Western Michigan. And my father, he has 250 acres outside of Grand Rapids, and he's almost lost his entire farm crop. Two of our neighbors have lost two cattle, and another neighbor lost four cattle due to the heat.

And I'm an indoor medical marijuana grower for my five caregivers, three AIDS patients, my grandmother - cancer - myself with Crohn's disease and my father with Crohn's disease. And I even have full-blown air conditioning going on, and the 1,000-watts lights killed half my crop, which is basically - I'm on disability, that's my only other money. And it's really, really, really sort of bad thing.

And if next week is as hot as they're going to say, people all over are going to lose their crops.

CONAN: What are they saying about next week?

JASON: Well, next there's supposed to be a heat increase in the very high 90s again. And we've had no rain - other than brief thunderstorms that just dropped droplets.

CONAN: And those are obviously very local, too.

JASON: Yes, yes, and they did more damage to crops than they actually did help with the rain. So it was high wind, you know, all the power outages and all that, as well. We didn't really get power outages, but it's connected.

CONAN: And of course, these economic problems, if your father lost half his crop, that's just what people in Michigan need. It's been pretty bad the last few years.

JASON: Exactly, and it's hit everybody, especially the small farms. They really can't take it. They don't have the backup. I mean, when the price of oil is high, you're talking, you know, that's basically - you derive all of your fertilizers from coal tar if you're using chemical fertilizers, and for the medical marijuana, I use a mixture of chemical and natural fertilizers. And they just couldn't keep up.

First they just started growing like crazy, and then the heat got too much, couldn't control it. I had fans going everywhere, two air conditioners going on, and they just wouldn't stop. And I just - I don't know what to do. I'm out. I need a new car. I actually called my dad, asking him how it was going, (unintelligible) like I need like an extra $20 just to make it. He's like, I just lost everything (unintelligible). I don't even have $2. And...

CONAN: Wow, hope for a break in the weather, Jason, thanks very much, good luck.

JASON: All right, it was great to be on the show, thank you, Neal.

CONAN: Let's see if we can go next to - this is Mason(ph), Mason with us from Mesa, Arizona.

MASON: Yeah, good afternoon, Neal, how are you, sir?

CONAN: I'm well, thank you.

MASON: Great.

CONAN: But I'm in an air-conditioned studio. What about you?

MASON: Well, I'm in an air-conditioned pickup, thank God. It's 107 degrees out so far, and oh man, it is deadly heat. But I was talking with your gentleman that answers the phone, and we were discussing about how to cope with the heat down - and today the forecast high is to 114 degrees.

And basically I do a lot of manual labor, and the way that I cope with the heat, basically, is when I'm out doing manual labor, I basically will, you know, work 20 minutes on when the sun's beating down on me. Then I'll take five to six minutes off and sit in my air-conditioned vehicle to cool down, and I always keep a five-gallon pail of water on me. It's imperative. You must.

CONAN: I get that. Is 114 in Tucson, at this time - excuse me, Mesa at this time of the year unusual? I mean, I see the charts, it looks like it's that all the time in the summertime.

MASON: You know, it's a little bit unusual. Our average temperature is, for this time of the year, should be about 109. However, I've heard forecasts going up to about 115 to 116 by the end of the week. So, you know, it's - even though it is a dry heat, you know, people say that, yes it is a dry heat, but it's a very uncomfortable heat, you know.

CONAN: Well, do your best to keep cool.

MASON: I definitely will, and do the same for me. I know you guys have had a heat wave, and I know it has cooled down in Washington recently, but...

CONAN: It's been nice the past couple of days, but boy it was tough over the weekend.

MASON: Yeah, wasn't it?


MASON: Neal, thank you for taking my call, buddy, and I intend to call in. I'm a first-time caller, longtime listeners. I appreciate your show.

CONAN: Thanks very much for that, Mason, appreciate your time.

MASON: Have a great - have an awesome day.

CONAN: Thanks. We're talking about the recent heat wave, how it's changed your jobs or your plans, 800-989-8255. You can also send us an email, talk@npr.org. And up next, why high temperatures can often prove deadly. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan, it's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.


CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. We're talking about the heat: the top weather-related killer in the United States, according to the National Weather Service. Excessive heat kills more people every year, on average, than floods, lightning, tornadoes and hurricanes combined.

This latest heat wave is blamed for at least 46 deaths across the Midwest and on the East Coast, according to the Associated Press. Those areas got a break this week, but hot weather is now headed west, into California, where temperatures in some desert areas could reach as high as 120 degrees, five to 10 degrees higher than normal.

If this kind of heat is what we can now expect come summertime, how does that change your job or your plans? 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. Go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Joining us now by smartphone from New York is Eric Klinenberg, professor of sociology at NYU and author of "Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago." Good of you to be with us today.

ERIC KLINENBERG: It's a pleasure.

CONAN: And in a city like Chicago, who tends to be affected most by the intense heat?

KLINENBERG: Well, everyone feels the heat, but the people who are really vulnerable are older and frail. They tend to be more socially isolated, and surprisingly, they tend to be more female than - sorry, more male than female. Women are actually more likely to live alone and age alone, but men are more likely to die in heat waves.

CONAN: Your book is about the heat wave in Chicago, 1995, when over 700 people died. This one heat wave longer, but not so bad.

KLINENBERG: Well, there are a few differences. First of all, it's hard to believe for someone who's been up here on the East Coast, but it was actually cool this past week compared to Chicago in 1995. The temperature hit 106, and the heat index - which is like the experienced heat - topped 120 for a couple of days.

The other big thing is that there were very high low temperatures. It just didn't cool down at night.

CONAN: And so there was no relief. And I guess even, what, 20 years ago people had fewer air conditioners.

KLINENBERG: That's true, but there was still enough air conditioning that the power grid just couldn't handle the load. And that's one of the big issues that cities face during these extreme summer weeks. We set records for energy consumption. Our grids aren't up to snuff. And people can't use the air conditioning units, even if they have them, when there's no power.

CONAN: And we see these death totals, 700 people in 1995. And even then, there was a lot of denial. I was looking at some of the records of those who died in this most recent heat wave, and it was caused by a heart condition exacerbated by excessive heat and diabetes and obesity. People say, wait a minute. These people were in trouble, anyway.

KLINENBERG: In Chicago, there was a big debate about whether the deaths were really real. The mayor challenged the statistics coming out from the medical examiner's office. The great, late columnist Mike Royko wrote an article about whether the heat wave was a media event.

But the way that the most careful epidemiologists look at this now is they look at the excess deaths for a period of time when there's a lot of heat and compare it to ordinary times. It turns out that you see these big spikes in death when there's heat waves, and you don't see a dip right after that.

You're talking about people who might live for many years if they survive the hot weather. It's clearly not just harvesting people who are about to die.

CONAN: And are governments doing better?

KLINENBERG: Well, they are doing better in many cities. We've come a long way since 1995. You know, go back to that year, when the heat came into the city, the mayor was on vacation. The health commissioner was on vacation. The person who ran the paramedics was on vacation. The city didn't even use its heat plan.

These days, we're much more attuned to the dangers of extreme heat. We do things in many cities like compile lists of very old and isolated people and call out to them when the heat weather arrives. We also spend a lot more time warning people about the dangers of heat.

So in Chicago, for instance, there's much more awareness of how important it is to check up on elderly relatives and neighbors. We have changed in that way.

CONAN: Some of the heat problems on the East Coast caused by that terrible thunderstorm, that line, the derecho, it was called. That line of storms just at the end of last month and knocked power out to so many people. And, of course, the heat wave followed right on its heels. But that's a storm-related event. If the grid is going to be overburdened by people needing air conditioning as summers get hotter and hotter, that's going to be a structural problem.

KLINENBERG: I think this is a serious structural problem, and it's structural not just in the sense that we have power-grid issues, but also we have a new climate, structurally. What we know about climate change is that there will be a higher incidence of extreme weather systems - not just hotter heat waves, but also more of them.

This is really the new normal, this kind of weather. And we need to come up with some strategy for reversing things, of course, but we also need to find a way to adapt.

CONAN: Well, thanks very much for the call - for being with us today, Eric Klinenberg. Appreciate your time.

KLINENBERG: My pleasure. Take care.

CONAN: Eric Klinenberg, professor of sociology at New York University, author of "Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago." Here's an email from Carrie(ph) in Southern Illinois: I'm a horse rancher in the Midwest. We've experienced three summers of excessive heat and two summers now of drought. This is directly affecting my business in a negative manner.

I can't teach riding lessons in triple-digit temperatures. People aren't purchasing horses, not only due to the heat, but now lack of pasture. And hay prices are through the roof, so people do not wish to buy a horse under these conditions. My grazing pastureland is brown, with minimal nutrient density. I've been feeding hay I designated for fall feeding.

I can find more hay, but it's now three times the price. I'm hauling water daily to horses to save our well. I haul water to hose the horses in the afternoons during peak heat to keep their body temps down. I have drum fans on the horses, but when air temp is 110, the fans just blow hot air.

The demands on me physically have escalated beyond anything I could have expected. While managing in triple digits, my expenses have escalated. My business has dropped off to next to nothing. If I could move north, I would.

Let's get another caller in. And this is Hal, and Hal's on the line with us from Edmond, Oklahoma.

HAL: Hi, there, Neal.

CONAN: Hi, there. You're on the air. Go ahead, please.

HAL: OK. I build and fix and repair radio stations for a living with my own company. And with the way the summer has been getting here more and more in Oklahoma, we're spending a lot of time doing things like doubling-up on air conditioning, revising ventilation systems so that the - you know, that if something goes wrong, we don't cook transmitters.

I mean, it's a situation where, you know, a perfectly healthy transmitter at a 100,000-watt radio station will be, you know, it'll be around 20, 30, 40 kilowatts worth of transmitter. It's kind of equipment that, new, is worth, you know, 60 to $150,000. And air conditioning conks out on you, and that thing keeps running, and the next thing you know, you're doing tens of thousands of dollars' worth of repair.

CONAN: Most electronic equipment has shifted over the past - certainly my lifetime - from tubes to transistors and various kinds of circuits, nowhere near as hot as they used to be. But radio transmitters, do they still use a big tube?

HAL: Very large ones will have one tube in them. The only tube in them will be the power tube, which is a tub that, you know, costs, you know, about maybe 12 inches in diameter, and costs, you know, three, $4,000 new. And, again, you can toast that tube in three hours' time if the air conditioning decides to conk on the building, and when it's 105 outside.

CONAN: For some reason, indelibly linked in my mind is the number, the 4CX10000D.

HAL: I've got a couple clients who use that transmitter tube.


CONAN: And you could...

HAL: Now this is talking about geeky talk, where, you know, on national radio, two guys are comparing tube types.


CONAN: Yes, it is. But you could toast - you could toast almost - you could fry an egg on that tube.

HAL: Very easily, yeah. No, heat and humidity control, my clients all run pretty quality operations, and, you know, they're right there with me with the let's not melt a transmitter down because we decided not to, you know, spend a few thousand dollars and double-up on the A/C in the building.

CONAN: All right, Hal, what's it like in Edmond, Oklahoma, today?

HAL: Not bad. It's only 95 degrees, and the humidity's enough to make you melt. But it's not bad compared to what it's been last week.

CONAN: Well, stay cool, Hal.

HAL: Thank you. Great show. Thanks, Neal.

CONAN: Thanks, bye-bye. Here's - joining us now by phone from O'Fallon, Illinois is Craig Votrian. He's the business manager and financial secretary-treasurer for Operative Plasterers and Cement Masons Local 90, which is based in Troy, Illinois. And it's good of you to be with us today.

CRAIG VOTRIAN: Hello. How are you doing today?

CONAN: I'm doing well. How are your workers holding up in the heat?

VOTRIAN: It's pretty tough. I mean, this week is not quite as bad as what we had last week, or actually for about the last 10 days. We've had temperatures well above normal. We've had records about five or six days in a row. It is very tough working in the concrete.

CONAN: And do you shift schedules and work early in the morning and then in the evening?

VOTRIAN: Exactly, exactly. Matter of fact, we got a job that's going to work tonight on a bridge just because of that. You've got to keep the temperature in the concrete down, and they can't have the temperature above 90 degrees in order to pour the concrete. So they're going to pour it tonight on that bridge.

CONAN: What happens to the concrete when it gets above 90 degrees? Well, for starters, it sets up too fast, and it makes it very difficult to work and just - you can't get as good a product. You don't want to jeopardize the cracking of the concrete, so you try to do it in the coolest temperature you possibly can.

But you got to keep the project on schedule, too.

VOTRIAN: Absolutely. A lot of our jobs have a completion date, and in order to get it done, you got to take advantage of every day that's nice, not - but not have any rain that you can have.

CONAN: Rain, of course, will mess up the concrete, too.

VOTRIAN: Absolutely.

CONAN: And are there state regulations about the conditions your workers can - you know, if it gets too...

VOTRIAN: As far as working in the heat, you become acclimated to it, and there's no regulation if it gets above 100 degrees you can't work. It's more of an architectural thing that if the temperature gets so hot, they make you either - if you're going to pour, you got to put ice or liquid nitrogen in the concrete or some kind of retarding agent to keep the concrete from setting so fast.

CONAN: Does the formula also for creating the concrete, does that change a little bit?

VOTRIAN: Possibly a little bit, but I think the ingredients are pretty much the same other than maybe putting ice in it to cool the concrete.

CONAN: And, of course, you have to make sure that your workers, you say, get used to it, but anybody can get heat frustration.

VOTRIAN: Absolutely. That's why we stress to all of our people that the main thing is to stay hydrated. Water. I know a lot of the jobs will have Gatorade out there, and Gatorade is fine, but you got to make sure you take in a lot of water also.

CONAN: And what's it like in Troy, Illinois, today?

VOTRIAN: Not near as bad as what it has been. It's about 94, but it's - the humidity is up from what it has been. And normally in this area, our humidity is about as high as the temperature, which makes it sweltering. But last week when we had the high temperatures, humidity actually was low.

CONAN: So, well, I guess that was good news.

VOTRIAN: Yes, absolutely. It's more like Arizona weather in the St. Louis area.

CONAN: Well, we hope that the humidity stays down and the temperatures too. Thanks very much.

VOTRIAN: You bet. Take care.

CONAN: Craig Votrian, business manager and financial secretary treasurer for Operative Plasterers & Cement Masons Local 90, which is based in Troy, Illinois. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's go next to Bryce(ph), and Bryce is with us from Waterloo, Iowa.

BRYCE: Hi, Neal.


BRYCE: Yeah. I work construction also. I'm more into general contracting and residential construction. And I've noticed lately that when people are outside all day in this kind of heat, they not only get weaker faster, but we get more irritated, and I'm probably one of the worst culprits. But when it's 105 degrees outside with the heat index and, you know, a little bit of humidity, it's not pleasant to be around anybody.

CONAN: And it's - well, that's a business, construction, where you have to work with a large group of people.

BRYCE: Yeah. Generally, we have about nine guys on our crew, and we'll have subcontractors come in and out. And it - there's usually about 10, 12 guys on our job site at any one time. And if you look at the guys wrong some days, it can get ugly quick.

CONAN: Just a question about business in general. We've heard some sunnier reports about the construction business of late. Is your business picking up?

BRYCE: Yes. I mean, we're busier than we'd like to be some days. We got several jobs going on right now. I mean, we're looking really good. We're always busy. We got guys always coming up to us, like our subcontractors are always coming up to us, looking to hire people. It's crazy. I don't know how many people, in my town alone, are just looking to hire people. It's great.

CONAN: Well, good luck. Thanks very much, and...

BRYCE: Yeah.

CONAN: ...keep calm.

BRYCE: Yeah. Thank you.

CONAN: So long. This is an email we have from Luke(ph) in Grand Rapids, mentioning an earlier call we had from that city: I'm also in Grand Rapids and am a fly fisher. Last night, I went to a stream in my area that I fish a lot and noticed there were dozens of dead trout. I don't think many coldwater fish are going to make it through summer here.

And let's see if we can get Marcus(ph) on the line, Marcus with us from Fort Myers.

MARCUS: Thank you, Neal. Yeah. We're - we breed turtles here in Fort Myers, Florida. We've been in business for over 20 years. You had some people call earlier who are agriculturalists. We're aquaculturalists, and our company is called The Turtle Source. We constantly need to cool our turtles. We run water, we spray all the time, but we actually have two different challenges.

We have to stay cool here, constantly buying our guys Gatorade. Our whole team is constantly drinking a bunch and hydrating like your other caller said. But we also ship to all 50 states. And for our turtles to go safely, we have to constantly monitor the temperatures. We have to monitor our temperatures that we're shipping.

So now we take our stuff to the airport late at night, as late as possible, just before the plane takes off. UPS will take it right to their hub in Louisville. We have to watch Louisville's hub. If Louisville is going to be over 90, we can't even ship at all because it's just too hot.

Now we look at the destinations. If California or Texas or any other part of the country is in a heat wave and it's going to be 90 or above, it's just not safe to ship. And you have people who want the turtle coming to their door. They can't. It can't go on a truck, especially a dark brown truck in the heat. It can't go on a truck safely and get there, so they've got to pick it up at the center or it's not safe to ship at all.

Sometimes people get frustrated. Sometimes there's cancellations. So we're looking at, you know, here at our end - because we didn't really even have a winter. A lot of our breeding turtles need a winter in order to potentially produce eggs. And, you know, we went right from last fall right into spring, right into summer really fast, real early. So a lot of our breeding stuff couldn't even produce eggs this year, so we were kind of thrown off not having our winter.

We're trying to keep all that stuff going right. Then again, we've got to look at, you know, how these turtles arrive. And there are times when, you know, I pretty much let people go home early because there's no packing to be done on the day where it's not safe to ship. In our sun right here, you know, it might be 95, it might be 98, it's 120 something in the sun, and it's crazy. If we don't cover all our turtles, they die. If we don't pull their eggs real fast, they die.

So for us at the Turtle Source, it's hard to keep our stuff going right with these temperatures because it's even hotter here in south Florida than it normally is. Like I said, we didn't even have a winter.

CONAN: Well, we wish you and your turtles the best of luck. Thanks very much for the call.

MARCUS: Thank you so much, Neal.

CONAN: And a couple of emails, this from Justin(ph) in Portland, Maine: I spent five years living in Austin, Texas. Finally caved and decided to move back to the Northeast because of the heat and partly the allergens. Now, I live in Portland, Maine, I can bike and walk about comfortably and no longer need an air conditioner. I enjoy the winters here more than the summers in Texas. My quality of life has much improved.

This from Jason in Memphis: Over the weekend, I participated in auditions for NBC's "The Voice." The heat index in Memphis topped out at 122 degrees. With long lines outside, there were several people passing out and becoming physically ill from the heat. Oh, the things people will do for fame. It's the TALK OF THE NATION. Thanks to everybody who wrote in. This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.