Flooding, tornadoes, hurricanes or lightning might come to mind when considering the types of weather that can turn deadly, but it turns out that more Americans are killed by heat than any other type of extreme weather.
According to statistics compiled by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, heat has claimed an average of 158 lives in the U.S. each year based on the most recent 30-year period from 1992 to 2021. That far outpaces the average number of people killed annually by floods (88), tornadoes (71), hurricanes (45) and lightning (37).
NOAA's records of heat-related fatalities date back to 1986. The deadliest year from extreme heat was 1995 when the deaths of 1,021 Americans were blamed on excessively hot weather. 1989 and 2004 had the fewest number of people killed by heat with only six such deaths.
A July 1995 heat wave in Chicago was a major contributor to the record number of heat-related deaths that year. For five straight days between July 12 and July 16, high temperatures in the Windy City ranged from the mid-90s to the mid-100s, with overnight lows from the mid-70s to the mid-80s.
Chicago's Midway Airport peaked at 106 degrees on July 13. The low temperature the next morning only fell to 84 degrees. In fact, the airport's lowest temperature during the five-day heat wave was 76 degrees, providing virtually no relief at night.
According to NOAA's Natural Disaster Survey Report on the July 1995 heat wave, at least 465 deaths were attributed to the excessive heat in Chicago alone over the period from July 11 to July 27. However, the extreme heat wasn't just confined to Chicago; it seared much of the Midwest. In all, NOAA estimates more than 1,000 people were killed by blazing temperatures throughout the region during that heat wave.
Most of the heat victims were elderly and lived in homes or apartments without access to air conditioning, according to NOAA's report, and the hospitals were not prepared for the large influx of patients.
The report noted that weather forecasts in the Midwest accurately predicted the extreme temperatures, but the heat was initially viewed more as an inconvenience than as a public health emergency or disaster. Consequently, there was no communication to the public to warn people of the potentially deadly consequences for those who are sensitive to excessive heat.
In order to prevent such a disaster again, local governments have since implemented measures to help people prepare for extreme heat. That includes improved communication between the National Weather Service, local governments and public safety officials about the potential impacts from the heat wave, how to prepare for it and what actions should be taken once it arrives.
Additionally, most cities open up cooling centers when there's an imminent threat of excessive heat, providing relief for anyone without access to air conditioning.
The NWS issues an experimental product called "HeatRisk" in the western U.S. to help determine the risk that excessive heat will pose on human health based on the current forecast.
How to prepare and stay safe during extreme heat
It's imperative to take the proper precautions to stay cool and stay safe during a heat wave so that you don't suffer from heat exhaustion or heatstroke.
When the combination of hot temperatures and high humidity is expected to result in dangerous conditions that can cause heat-related illnesses, the NWS issues a variety of alerts to get the word out to the public. When an Excessive Heat Warning or a Heat Advisory is issued, it's important to take action.
First off, try to limit the time spent outdoors during extreme heat. The best time to be outdoors would be early in the morning or later in the evening when temperatures are not quite as high.
If you need to go outdoors during the day, wear loose, lightweight and light-colored clothing and drink plenty of fluids.
Always "look before you lock" to ensure you have not left any children or pets inside a car. Temperatures inside a locked vehicle with the windows rolled up can be deadly.
Track the temperatures in your area with the FOX Weather app. The free FOX Weather livestream is also available 24/7 on the website and app and on your favorite streaming platform. The FOX Weather Update podcast also provides weather information for the entire country.