By Claire Sullivan, Louisiana Illuminator
Louisiana’s record-breaking summer has had fatal consequences. Sixteen people in the state died in June and July from heat-related causes, according to the Louisiana Department of Health.
Six of those deaths were in June, and 10 were in July, said Kevin Litten, the health department’s press secretary. Those two months alone have already surpassed the state’s average of 10 heat-related deaths a year from 2010 to 2020, according to a 2023 state analysis.
On top of that, Louisiana has already shattered its annual average for heat-caused emergency department visits. From April 1 to July 29, there were 3,305 visits, compared to 10-year annual average of 2,700, said Dr. Alicia Van Doren, a preventive medicine physician working with the health department on tracking heat injuries and deaths.
She attributes these high numbers to record-temperatures driven by climate change.
“It truly is a public health problem,” Van Doren said.
As concerning as those numbers are, “all of this is an undercount,” she said. That’s because exposure to heat doesn’t always end up in medical charts or death records.
Louisiana is no stranger to heat, but this summer has brought unusually scorching temperatures across the South and other parts of the globe. July was the Earth’s hottest month ever recorded.
The Baton Rouge area had its hottest June and July ever recorded, according to data from the National Weather Service. Lake Charles had its hottest July, and New Orleans had its second.
Climate change, driven by human activity, is making extreme heat events more common, scientists say. The World Meteorological Organization predicts there’s a 98% likelihood at least one of the next five years will be the warmest on record.
Van Doren said it’s vital we start thinking of extreme heat like we do other weather disasters such as storms or tornadoes—especially as the danger becomes more pressing.
Who’s most at risk?
Research indicates the burden of heat is not shared equally.
There are a number of groups that suffer disproportionately from heat-related illnesses: men, those in poverty, Black Americans and those who work outdoors or without air conditioning.
In the state report, men accounted for 81% of emergency department visits and 87% of hospitalizations for heat-related illnesses.
The report also found a racial disparity in who suffers the most from heat. Black residents experienced 1.5 times the rate of emergency visits and 1.4 times the hospitalization rate of white residents for heat-related illnesses. Black workers also had twice the hospitalization rate of white workers.
Other groups at high risk in heat are those who are pregnant or have “chronic health conditions like heart disease, breathing conditions, high blood pressure, diabetes and obesity,” according to the health department. Though there are a variety of risk factors, anyone can suffer from a heat-related illness.
North Louisiana parishes had the highest hospitalization rates, but all parts of the state had parishes with high emergency department visits.
How to stay cool
The intense heat calls for caution. It has been so extreme at times health officials have recommended people shut their curtains and blinds and avoid outdoors altogether if possible.
Residents should drink plenty of water, avoid strenuous outdoor activity, apply sunscreen of at least SPF 15 and wear loose, light-colored clothing. Children and pets should never be left in vehicles for any amount of time, the health department warns.
People should also learn the signs of heat-related illnesses, which come with symptoms like muscle pain, dizziness, high body temperature, fast pulse, confusion, nausea and loss of consciousness. Read more about the signs of danger—and what to do—here.
Louisiana Illuminator is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Louisiana Illuminator maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Greg LaRose for questions: firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Louisiana Illuminator on Facebook and Twitter.
Help inform our coverage as we build a newsroom for and by the people of New Orleans:
Please take a few minutes to share your thoughts with us by answering each question.