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The deadly heat wave that struck metro Phoenix last year showed no discrimination

The parking lot of a shopping plaza (Via Marshal Plaza/Shutterstock)

Priscilla Orr, aged 75, was living in her old white Kia in a supermarket parking lot last summer after telling her family she had lost her money and home due to falling victim to a romance scam.

However, the car broke down and the air conditioner stopped working, leaving her vulnerable to the dangerous desert heat. Last July, Orr collapsed while walking on the scalding asphalt of the lot, where the air temperature soared to 149 degrees Fahrenheit (65 C), even as the overall temperature topped triple digits.

Paramedics arrived too late, and she passed away.

Orr was one of over 400 people who died last year in metro Phoenix from heat-related causes during a 31-day stretch of scorching days reaching 110 F (43.3 C) or higher. This period spanned from the end of June through all of July.

White Tanks Cemetery (Via Marshal Plaza/Shutterstock)

This accounted for about two-thirds of the 645 heat-related deaths confirmed throughout the entire year in Maricopa County, which includes Phoenix and is Arizona’s most populous county. No other major city in the U.S. has reported such high numbers of heat-related deaths.

“This should not have happened to her,” said Anna Marie Colella, Orr’s former daughter-in-law and the mother of her three adult granddaughters. “She should have lived until she was 100, because that was just Priscilla.”

According to Tom Frieders, the warning coordination meteorologist in Phoenix, heat is the leading cause of weather-related deaths, surpassing hurricanes, tornadoes, and floods combined.

As the National Weather Service predicts above-normal temperatures and below-normal precipitation again this summer, lives are at risk once more.

“We’re just hoping it’s not to the extreme level we saw last year,” Frieders said.

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