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The Pacific Northwest heat dome event of 2021 killed hundreds of people. KNKX reporters Bellamy Pailthorp and Lilly Ana Fowler look in-depth at who died, why and how King and Pierce counties can better prepare for future heat waves.

HEATED: A conversation about how, why we reported our summer heat wave series

Pacific Northwest Heat
Elaine Thompson/AP
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AP
The sun sets over the Olympic Mountains, made a brilliant red because of smoke from fires raging in British Columbia that swept down into the Puget Sound region, Wednesday, Aug. 2, 2017, in Seattle. An excessive heat warning for the area continues through Friday evening, as unusually hot weather is expected to bring temperatures into the 90's on Thursday. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

KNKX reporters Lilly Ana Fowler and Bellamy Pailthorp wrapped up a three-part series this week called HEATED, which looked at the people who died and why and how King and Pierce counties can be better prepared for future heat waves. They share their personal takeaways from the project with KNKX's Kevin Kniestedt.

Kevin Kniestedt: So lots of people were reporting on this. What was sort of the idea for this series?

Bellamy Pailthorp: Lilly kept posting like little news releases about people, individuals who had died. And I had in the back of my head a heat map that had been done a year ago by King County. And this is where they document the urban heat island effect, which is how the built environment can increase heat in certain places. Typically, you know, places that are poorer or have had less investment, certainly fewer trees in those areas and more sort of paved impervious surfaces, they call it. So I was thinking about the built environment. And she kept posting about the individuals. And so I said, let's put these things together. Right, Lilly?

Lilly Ana Fowler: Yeah. And I should say that I think just personally, too, is the heat wave was very impactful for me. I mean, I grew up in the desert. I grew up in the Sonoran Desert in Arizona. And I still felt like what happened in June I had never experienced before. And it was weighing heavily on my mind.

Kevin: So, you know, I've overheard in the newsroom you talking about the data was messy. What exactly does that mean?

Bellamy: Well, so we layered these two data streams, if you will, the heat map that shows where it's hottest. You know, these are like micro measurements of a community and, you know, or a jurisdiction like King County. And it turns out Tacoma had one too. So we started looking at those two areas, and then we got the names, which was not easy, and the ages and the death locations of all these people who died. And then we pinned them onto the map just to see how it lined up. And, you know, it didn't always line up perfectly. That's what I mean by messy data. It's not like a clear correlation that the hottest areas where everyone died.

Lilly: One more thing I would say about the data is that most of the time it was clear where folks died, at their home often, but sometimes they died at a hospital or nursing home. And the conditions that led to that weren't quite as clear. Did the hospital not have, you know, were they overrun by patients or what was happening exactly that led to their death? Maybe they were already so hot at home that they had to be rushed to the hospital. But it wasn't always clear.

Bellamy: Not only that there are important privacy laws around medical records and deaths in Washington. And so it's not like we just got files full of, you know, everything that happened with these people who died. You know, we got sort of little clues and then we did a lot of cold calling, just finding phone numbers, looking on social media, trying to find people who would tell us about the person who died and what happened.

Kevin: What was that experience like, cold calling people who were relatives or friends or whatever the case may be for someone who died over the course of this, that must have been really challenging.

Lilly: It was pretty awful. So I talked to the parents who had a son with schizophrenia who died during the heat wave. And I've you know, even after this series came out, I've been texting with the father. And he's been very kind and said nice things about the series, but it was clearly really difficult for them to go through it all while still grieving the loss of their son. And I think they did it out of a sense of duty, but it was just emotionally really trying.

Bellamy: Yeah, it's, it is really hard to call someone who's going through grief and ask them to share sometimes gruesome details with you about what happened. You know, one of the, the sort of the lead story in our series, William Clark, you know, checked on his friend and found him after he had been dead for several days, sitting with two fans running, I mean, just an awful experience.

Kevin: You're both veteran reporters and you've covered a lot of things. And just, you know, I think it's fair to say that just hearing it in your voice that the emotion of this series is not lost on either of you.

Lilly: Yeah, I think whenever you're dealing with people who actually lost their lives and you're talking to the folks who loved them most, I think it stays with you as a reporter.

Bellamy: 138 families or communities that recognize that someone died because we couldn't get them into a hotel room or into a cool place. It was an unnecessary death. This is preventable. That's what we hear again and again, and it's just shocking.

Kevin: What surprised you most in your reporting on this?

Lilly: I think, for me, it was when people had family or friends trying to take care of them and do everything that they could. People were vulnerable without realizing how vulnerable they were. And that's what really, you know, when you have a 41-year-old man who may have mental health issues but was otherwise in good health, pass away at 3 o'clock in the morning by a fan with the windows open in his own home, that really just stays with you.

Bellamy: I mean, what's interesting about it, too, is that there's, we can keep people from dying in this way if we educate ourselves and take better care and it's a wake up call for trying to address, you know, what we can about climate change.

Kevin: So when we talk about messaging and effective messaging, are there signs of what effective messaging is and is part of effective messaging? Neighbors checking in on neighbors ...

Lilly: I think it is. I think it's also being really specific about the way that heat can creep up on somebody and looking at what are the signs of, say, heat stroke? Like I said, I think people were vulnerable without realizing it. And I think with other weather events, there might be more clear messaging about the fact that, say, a tornado can be deadly. And we're just now getting used to the idea that, hey, heat can be deadly too.

Kevin: Lilly Ana Fowler and Bellamy Pailthorp, KNKX reporters who brought us the series Heated, which you can hear on our website, KNKX.org. Thank you so much for your work on this series.

Lilly: Thanks, Kevin.

Bellamy: Happy to do it. Thank you.

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