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Heat Safety and Preparation Tips: 14 Ways to Prepare for a Massive Heat Wave


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Last Updated: June 26, 2020

You’ve heard the advice about how to survive a heat wave: drink more water, avoid strenuous activity, use fans or air conditioning… While these tips are helpful for short-term heat waves, they are less useful during massive heat waves.

What if the power goes out during a heat wave and you can’t run your AC?  What if you have medical conditions?  What if the heat wave causes a wildfire?

Below are 14 heat safety tips and steps you can take to be prepared for a massive heat wave.

Massive Heat Waves on the Way?

Every summer, the news is full of reports of massive heat waves in various parts of the world.  It isn’t just that news coverage is increasing.

The number of heat waves has risen drastically since the 1990s.  The heat waves are also lasting longer, with record-high temperatures lasting months instead of just days.

Worst Heat Waves in Recent History

  • Europe 2003: The two-month heat wave caused 70,000+ deaths and billions in agricultural damage
  • America 2006: Starting in mid July, the heat wave hit areas all across the USA and parts of Canada. The heat wave persisted in some areas until the end of August. Temperatures got to 115F in South Dakota and 130°F in parts of California. At least 225 people died.
  • Russia 2010: This 44-day heat wave killed 56,000 people and sparked wildfires. (1)
heat wave statistics
Image Credit: Global Change

These heat waves aren’t rare flukes. Climatologists predict prolonged heat waves will be common in the USA by 2039.  And, if greenhouse gas emissions continue at their current levels, by 2100 three out of four people on earth will be subject to deadly heat and humidity levels for at least 20 days of the year. (2, 3)

This isn’t a debate about global warming.  The risk of heat waves is a reality which would be irresponsible to ignore.

Heat Waves are Deadly

Extreme heat is actually the second leading cause of weather-related deaths in the USA (right behind hurricanes).

Over 600 people die per year in the USA alone due to extreme heat.  It doesn’t even take much of a temperature spike to increase deaths: studies found each 1°C (1.8°F) rise in temperature increased death rates by up to 5%. (4)

During the July 2018 heat wave in Quebec, the record-high temperature of 98F caused 70 deaths.  The morgue became so crowded they had to send bodies to a funeral home for storage. (5, 6)

Disasters Associated with Heat Waves

wildfire and heat waves

In addition to directly causing death, heat waves can lead to other disasters (7):

  • Power outages
  • Drought
  • Famine
  • Infrastructure damage
  • Air pollution
  • Increased crime
  • Riots

How to Prepare for a Massive Heat Wave

These 14 steps will prepare you for heat waves, including the disasters like wildfires and power outages which may accompany them.

1. Identify if You Are At Risk

Extreme temperatures can cause dehydration, heat stroke and other heat-related illnesses.  Heat can also worsen medical conditions, increasing the likelihood of death.   If you or a family one is vulnerable, you’ll need to take extra precautions against heat waves.

Vulnerable groups include:

  • Elderly: The elderly are most likely to die during a heat wave. They have diminished ability to sweat, weaker cardiovascular systems, and less ability to detect thirst.
  • Infants and young children: They are also less able to regulate body temperature and are reliant upon others to keep them cool and hydrated.
  • Pregnant and nursing women: These women can easily become dehydrated during heat waves.
  • People who work outdoors
  • People with pre-existing medical conditions, including cardiovascular diseases, respiratory illnesses like asthma, and kidney disease.

2. Medication Safety during Heat Waves

Taking medications during a heat wave might be risky. The heat can affect how the medications act in the body.  Or the medications themselves may make heat-related illnesses more likely.

Some medications may:

  • Reduce sweating. This includes anticholinergic drugs, which are in many antihistamines, antidepressants, and anti-Parkinson disease medications.
  • Increase heat production in the body. This includes OTC nasal decongestants and stimulants.
  • Dilate blood vessels: When the blood vessels are dilated, more heat goes to the skin and increases the risk of heat stroke. Many blood pressure medicines are vasodilators.
  • Become toxic in high heat. The heat can change the chemistry of the actual medicine. Or, dehydration causes blood volume to change and the drug becomes dangerously concentrated in the body.
  • Lose their efficacy. Drugs like antibiotics, pain killers, and adrenalines are susceptible to heat. They might not work if exposed to high temperatures. (8)

Be sure to talk to your doctor about any medications you take and whether dosage/usage should change during a heat wave.

3. Learn Heatstroke First Aid

You can read instructions on how to treat heatstroke here.  The main goal is to cool the body down to safe temperatures.

To be prepared, consider getting instant cold packs which are activated by squeezing.   Unlike freezer cold packs, these will be available even if the power is out.
instant cold pack

4. Stockpile Water

Staying hydrated by drinking ample water is incredibly important during a heat wave.  But what if there isn’t any water to drink?

Water outages sometimes occur during heat waves because of damaged pipes: the roads get so hot they collapse and damage the pipes underneath.  You’ll need to have a stockpile of water on hand to get you through the heat wave.

Read this post on how to stockpile water.

5. Stockpile No-Cook Foods

The main reason to stockpile food during a heat wave is so you don’t have to leave your home to go shopping.  These foods should ideally require no cooking; using your stove will just make it even hotter inside your home.

Another reason to stockpile food is because the droughts which accompany long-term heat waves wipe out crops.  A long-term heat wave could lead to food shortages and famine.

It’s good practice to have at least a 30-day supply of emergency food on hand anyway. See a list of the best foods for your 30 day supply.

6. Keep Your Home Cool

When the temperatures start getting over 100F, staying cool isn’t just about comfort.  It’s imperative to keep your home cool so prevent heat exhaustion and heatstroke.

Here are things you can do so your home stays cool during a heat wave.

  • Have your AC checked regularly. You’ll want a professional to check for holes in the air conditioning ducts. Window units should be insulated properly. Units should be cleaned and maintained before AC season begins so you don’t experience problems when you need your AC the most.
  • Insulate your home. This will help keep cool air inside your home and hot air out.
  • Install window reflectors. These go over your windows on the interior side. They reflect heat away from your home. You can even make your own by getting cardboard and putting aluminum foil over it.
  • Get thermal drapes. Thermal drapes are a small investment towards keeping heat out of your home. The good ones are made of two or three layers of fabric and can reduce the amount of light entering the home by 90%.  You can also use shutters and awnings to keep out hot air.
  • Use weather strips on doors and windows. This will help trap cool air in the home.
  • Turn off lights and electrical devices. These produce a surprising amount of heat. Turning them off will also reduce the electric load.

7. Avoid Leaving Your Home

In addition to food and water, stockpile other supplies you will need so you don’t have to leave your home until the heat wave is over.   It might sound dramatic, especially if you plan on traveling in an air-conditioned car, but consider this:

  • Roads MELTED during Australia’s 2016 and 2019 heat waves, forcing drivers to abandon their vehicles.
  • During the 2006 heat wave in the USA, Interstate 44 in Oklahoma City had to close when it buckled from the heat.
  • In India during heat waves, people lost shoes when they got stuck on melted asphalt while trying to cross the road. (9, 10, 11,)

You risk having your vehicle get stuck or damaged if you go out into the heat wave.  On top of that, pollution levels can get dangerously high during heat waves. It’s better to play it safe and stay at home.

melted road
Bad paint job? No — this road in the UK melted during a heat wave! Image credit: Neil Owen CC BY-SA 2.0.

8. When Going Outdoors

If you must go outdoors during a heat wave, make sure to:

  • Wear appropriate clothing. Clothes should be light colored, loose, and made from non-synthetic breathable materials.
  • Avoid going out alone. You want to have someone nearby to help you if you suffer from heat stroke.
  • Never leave children or pets alone in a vehicle. Not even for “just a minute”!
  • Be aware of the symptoms of heat exhaustion. Get to a cool place if you have any of these symptoms.
  • Drink some water every 15 minutes, even if you don’t feel thirsty.
  • Have a vehicle emergency kit. If your vehicle breaks down or gets stuck in melted asphalt, you’ll need to have supplies to stay safe. See a checklist here.
  • Consider a face mask. When heat and oxygen mix with pollutants like car exhaust, the amount of dangerous ozone created gets worse. You can even see the pollution on these hot days in the form of haze.  Wearing an N95 face mask will filter out 95% of airborne particles.

9.  Be Ready for Power Outages

When the temperatures get high, more people turn on their air conditioning.  The increase spike in electric usage can blow the grid. This is what happened during the 2009 heat wave in Melbourne, Australia.

The high heat can also directly affect the power lines, making them less efficient in carrying power.  This can lead to outages as well. (13, 14,)

Without power to run AC or fans, people find themselves unable to keep cool and can succumb to heat stroke.  To stay safe,  have a plan for staying cool if the power goes out during a heat wave.

  • Get a generator. Portable generators can be used to run wall AC units or electric fans.  Make sure you know how to use the generator safely and have extension cords rated for it.
  • Consider solar panels. If a generator isn’t feasible, you can also get a portable solar charger with a solar power bank for storing electricity. The battery can then be used to power small electric fans.  Note that whole-home solar systems are tied to the grid and won’t work when the power goes out.
  • Create a “cool room.” This room should be facing south or east, have good ventilation, have thermal drapes over the windows, and be well-insulated. You can use a generator or solar-powered fan to cool just this room.
  • Open windows at night for ventilation. When the temperatures cool at night, open the windows so you can allow cool air to enter. Make sure it is safe to do so, such as by putting security bars over your first-floor windows.

10.  Stay Hydrated

During a heat wave, drink plenty of water even if you don’t feel thirsty.  You’ll also want to avoid caffeine and alcohol as these can dehydrate you faster.

However, drinking too much water can actually be dangerous.  It can over-dilute the amount of salt in your body, resulting in “water intoxication.”  To make sure you stay hydrated, drink electrolyte solutions like Gatorade.  I personally always have electrolyte packets (aka rehydration salts) in my first aid kit as well.

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*If you have kidney disease, liver disease, epilepsy, or another condition which requires restricting fluids, consult with your doctor about how to best stay hydrated.

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11. Check On Family and Friends

If any of your neighbors or loved ones are vulnerable to heat (elderly, have medical conditions, live alone, or don’t have AC), you should make a plan to check in on them.

Likewise, if you are vulnerable, you should make sure you have someone checking in on you.  Plan this before a heat wave hits so you aren’t left without help when you need it.

12. Keep Pets Safe

A lot of people don’t realize how vulnerable pets are to heat waves.  Here are ways you can keep them safe:

  • Provide more water. During a heat wave, your pets should have at least two sources of water. Remember they will drink more water than usual, so plan accordingly.  You don’t want your pet to run out of water while you are out of the house.
  • Don’t walk pets on hot surfaces. The sidewalks and roads can literally get hot enough to fry an egg during a heat wave. This can scald your pet’s sensitive paws.  If you must walk your pet outdoors, put protective booties on it.
  • Put ice packs on cages. Small animals which are kept in cages, like hamsters and birds, can be kept cool with an ice pack wrapped in a towel on their cage. Make sure it positioned in a way that they cannot chew it. Some animals also like frozen water bottles on their cages.
  • Don’t shave your pet. Many cats and dogs have double coats. They shed the undercoat when it is hot.  The top coat actually helps them stay cool and prevents sunburn.  Unless your vet says otherwise, it’s more harmful than helpful to shave them.
  • Beware of heat stroke symptoms. If your pet starts acting anxious or starts panting or drooling a lot, you should ideally take him to the vet immediately. If you can’t, try to cool the animal by moving it to the shade or pouring cool water over it.

13. Listen to Your NOAA Radio

NOAA public alert certified labels

Many other disasters can occur during a heat wave.  A NOAA emergency radio with the SAME alert feature can be programmed so an alarm goes off if any disaster occurs in your area.  That way you stay informed without having to constantly listen to the radio.

Read more about how to choose a NOAA radio here.

14. Have a Bug Out Bag Packed

If a wildfire or other major disaster occurs as a result of the heat wave, you will need to evacuate and FAST.  Now is the time to build a Bug Out Bag  so you are ready to leave if necessary.  You’ll also want to make sure your evacuation vehicle is ready and you have a plan on where to go.

How are you prepping for massive heat waves? Let us know in the comments below.

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