NEW: Heatwave causes suffering for poor, sick

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Regardless of the underlying cause of the current heat wave or future projections of worsening weather, most people are focused today on staying cool with a minimum of hassle. 

That, however, can be an impossibly tall order, depending on where you live and how wealthy you are. 

The safest — and most comfortable — solution is to simply stay indoors with the air conditioning cranked as high as it can go. 

Unfortunately, that strategy risks overwhelming the power grid and completely shutting off air conditioning— not to mention everything else that requires electricity— to thousands of people in the event of an outage.

It also doesn’t do anything for those who are too poor to afford air conditioning or the hundreds of homeless persons in Knoxville who live outdoors.

At Knox Area Rescue Ministries (KARM), which operates the city’s emergency homeless shelter, officials are asking the public to donate bottled water, sunscreen, and chapstick.

“This is a real burden,” said KARM spokesperson Karen Bowdle. “We’ve got the white flag out, we’re opening up the chapel for people to get in from the heat.”

Although the official high temperature at McGhee-Tyson Airport was 94 on Tuesday, Bowdle said the thermometer in KARM’s courtyard — surrounded by urban asphalt and concrete — registered a jaw-dropping 120.

“That’s the kind of heat and humidity that can kill people or make them sick,” Bowdle said,  “Downtown there isn’t a lot of green space, it’s mostly a lot of concrete.”

This summer has differed from previous ones in an important way, Bowdle explained.

“Our numbers are higher than in past summers,” she said. “People usually go back outside to sleep when warm weather arrives, but this summer for some reason we’ve been running at near capacity sometimes.”

On Tuesday night, for example, the men’s shelter was at 83 percent capacity and the women’s shelter was at 95 percent, she said.

“If people want to help, please tell them to bring a case or two of water to our shelter at 418 North Broadway,” Bowdle said. “We also need sunscreen, chapstick, and we have a huge need for new men’s underwear.”

She added, “We know the hearts of the people of our community. If they know our need, they will respond … We’re going to serve as many as we can, as long as we can, as best we can.”

The homeless aren’t the only ones suffering under the sun’s onslaught.

Pretty much anyone who spends much time outdoors is at risk right now, as well as those who are elderly or in poor health. 

“We certainly have an increase in call volume for heat-related illness,” said Daryl Warren, operations manager for AMR Knoxville, the area’s ambulance provider. “It’s also very taxing on our crew members, as well.” 

Warren said the crews on the 35 ambulances that responded to calls in Knox County on Wednesday saw “heat emergencies pretty most all of the day, people feeling the effects of the sun, dehydration. It’s been all day. We had to transport some to the hospital and some we could treat and release.”

Knoxville Fire Department Assistant Chief Mark Wilbanks said the area’s network of first responders was being strained by the extreme weather.

“There seems to be an increase in medical calls across the board this week. The EMS system as a whole has been busy,” Wilbanks said. “Today within a three-hour period we had about nine calls go out, all of them heat-related. Sometimes people are calling with heat-related issues and they don’t even know their issues are related to the heat.” 

Both Wilbanks and Warren stressed the importance of preventing heat illnesses before they can occur by staying indoors as much as possible, avoiding direct sunlight if going outside is unavoidable, and not drinking beverages with alcohol or caffeine.

“Stay in, stay cool and hydrate, hydrate, hydrate,” said Wilbanks. “That’s the key, to be honest with you — good hydration.”

Published on June 16, 2022.