Disaster Discourse: The Hagerty Blog

Extreme Weather Continues to Impact the United States as the Midwest Is Affected by Unhealthy Air Qualities


Many areas across the United States (US) experienced severe weather during the weekend of Friday, June 23 to Sunday, June 25, as a strong storm system and a continuing heat wave has caused widespread power outages, property damage, injuries, and fatalities. In addition to the severe storms and extreme heat, smoke from Canada’s unprecedented wildfire season—that caused unhealthy air quality in the New York City area earlier in June—has now spread to the Midwestern US, with air quality alerts impacting Chicago, Minneapolis, and Detroit as of Wednesday, June 28. 

Twitter: National Weather Service (NWS) Indianapolis

Extreme Storms and Tornadoes

Throughout the past two weeks, sizable portions of the US have experienced severe weather and tornadoes. More than 600 severe weather reports were reported during the week of June 18 through June 24, putting at least 57 million Americans under a severe weather threat. Several states across the Southeast and Ohio Valley, including Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Michigan, Mississippi, Ohio, Oklahoma, and Tennessee, were impacted by the extreme weather that produced almost 400 storm reports, including four tornadoes and hundreds of high wind and hail events. The aftermath of the storms left over 700,000 people without power on the evening of Sunday, June 25, and severe damage to property, including a “trail of destruction” in Bargersville, Indiana, where a tornado caused moderate to severe damage to at least 75 properties.

Another tornado that touched down in Martin County, Indiana, about 85 miles southwest of Indianapolis, caused one confirmed fatality and one injury; in Arkansas, officials reported two fatalities and an injury from a fallen tree resulting from the severe storms in the area. This storm system continues to push east. The NWS warns that the Northeast will experience showers with embedded thunderstorms through Thursday, June 29. Additionally, the Storm Prediction Center (SPC) has issued a Slight Risk of severe thunderstorms over the Upper Mississippi Valley through June 29 and the Mississippi/Western Ohio Valleys from June 29 to 30. The storms are accompanied by excessive heat warnings and advisories for parts of the Southwest, Southern Plains, Lower Mississippi Valley, and Central/Western Gulf Coast, from the NWS Weather Prediction Center (WPC) that will continue until Thursday, June 29.

Twitter: Millington Fire Dept.

Extreme Heat

Meanwhile, an oppressive heat wave is continuing to impact tens of millions of people across the Southwest US and parts of Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, New Mexico, and Oklahoma. The Big Bend area of southwest Texas reached 119 degrees on Friday, June 23, within one degree of tying the state’s all-time high of 120. On Sunday, June 25, several areas hit record-high temperatures, including a reported 112 degrees Fahrenheit in San Angelo, Texas, and 110 degrees Fahrenheit in Del Rio, Texas, the eighth consecutive record-breaking day in Del Rio. The extreme heat caused a fatality on Friday, June 23, Big Bend National Park in southwest Texas, an area experiencing daily temperature highs up to 119 degrees and a lack of shady areas and access to water.

Excessive heat warnings and heat advisories extended to the heavily populated cities of Austin and San Antonio, where temperatures were hovering around and sometimes exceeding triple digits. Heat advisories and excessive heat warnings are expected to remain in effect through the end of the week across the eastern third of Texas, along the Central Gulf Coast, and north through the Lower Mississippi Valley, including Dallas-Fort, San Antonio, New Orleans, Little Rock, Jackson, Memphis, Montgomery, and Nashville, according to the WPC.

Twitter: National Weather Service (NWS) Austin/San Antonio

As of Wednesday, June 28, the National Integrated Heat Health Information System (NIHHIS) estimates that over 104 million US residents remain under a heat advisory. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) predicts dangerous heat index values leading into the weekend of July 1, particularly near the Gulf of Mexico, where humidity is expected to be high (above 60 percent). The heat index, which is the combination of relative humidity and the air temperature, is measured based on what the temperature feels like to the human body. NOAA’s heat index calculator shows that temperatures above 103 degrees Fahrenheit with normal relative humidity (between 30 and 50 percent) “can lead to dangerous heat disorders with prolonged exposure and/or physical activity in the heat.” Using this metric, NOAA assessed that heat exposure was the number one cause of weather-related fatalities in 2022 and, looking forward, cautions residents living in high-humidity areas to seek shelter during high heat index weather.

Current US Heat Forecast and Watches Map: NIHHIS

In response to the heat, Texas Governor Greg Abbott and the Texas Division of Emergency Management (TDEM) have provided residents of Texas with maps and resources at Local Seasonal Relief Centers. These centers are designed to keep residents safe from extreme heat and cold conditions, and many serve as points of distribution (PODs) for emergency essentials and medical supplies. In neighboring Louisiana, Governor John Bel Edwards issued a State of Emergency Declaration for North and Central Louisiana in response to severe weather, including extreme heat, on June 17. Assistance remains available as extreme heat and severe winds continue to impact the region. 

Poor Air Quality Impacts Communities Across
the Midwest and Eastern US

Air Quality Map as of June 28, 2023: AirNow

In addition to extreme heat, the US has had a continuous trend of poor air quality since early June due to many factors, including a notable influx of Canadian wildfires caused by hot and dry weather during an anticyclonic ridge at the end of May. The Canadian Society for the Protection of Forests against Fire/la Société de protection des forêts contre le feu (SOPFEU) has issued warnings to the public, encouraging limited use of fire in public forests and increased awareness of the region’s critically dry and hot conditions. By mid-June, it was estimated that 123 million Americans, or over one-third of the US, were under air quality alerts. This meant that the air quality within those regions contained excessive quantities of any of the five Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)-identified major pollutants: ozone, particulate matter, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen dioxide.

Further, the air quality index (AQI) measures air pollution on a scale of zero to 500, where a low value indicates good air quality and anything above 200 or 300 is considered very unhealthy and hazardous, respectively. As of June 27, residents of the upper Midwest have been experiencing unhealthy and potentially unsafe air conditions, with AQI ranging from 150 in parts of Illinois and Michigan, to over 200 in metropolitan Chicago, Illinois, and Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

IQAir, which provides a live ranking of air pollution across the globe, named Chicago as the city with the greatest pollution, with an AQI of 209, peaking at noon on Tuesday, June 27. By three in the afternoon, it had dipped to 193, just below what the EPA and NOAA consider “very unhealthy;” at this level, NOAA and the EPA note that the risk of health effects is increased for all residents impacted by the smoke. In response to dangerous air quality effects, the Chicago Department of Public Health (CDPH) encouraged residents to limit exposure outdoors and stay updated on the situation. Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson issued a statement addressing the situation on Tuesday afternoon, stating, “The City will continue to provide updates and take swift action to ensure that vulnerable individuals have the resources they need to protect themselves and their families.” In response, local officials have closed beaches and canceled outdoor concerts through Wednesday to encourage Chicagoans to remain indoors.

On Wednesday, June 28, Detroit, Michigan surpassed Chicago for the worst air quality with an AQI of 232 at noon. In response, the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) announced that the State has been put under an air quality alert through Thursday due to elevated levels of particulate matter. In addition, the Detroit Health Department noted that prolonged exposure to wildfire pollution can create eye and respiratory infection, as well as heart failure for those with preexisting conditions. Detroit’s Acting Chief Public Health Officer Christina Floyd pledged to update residents with help from EGLE to ensure residents of the city remain safe and healthy.

Know Your Alerts and Warnings: Ready.gov

To stay informed about severe weather events, NOAA NWS provides the latest alerts in your area. Another way to stay updated is through real-time alerts available via the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Mobile App and other local and national communication systems. FEMA encourages individuals to stay informed to protect themselves against extreme weather events and urges individuals living in areas impacted by extreme heat to take necessary safety measures in preparation for and during heat waves. FEMA recommends equipping your residence or business with proper insulation, air conditioners, coverings, and reflectors on windows to keep cool. Many communities stand up free, public cooling centers, the locations of which are shared via local news outlets or can be accessed by contacting your local health department or 2-1-1 resource.

Additionally, it is important to prepare before a tornado occurs. The safest place to shelter during a tornado event is a constructed storm shelter that follows the International Code Council (ICC) standards for structural design and testing criteria. If this is not possible, ensure that a room in your home or business is fortified for use during a tornado. The best rooms will be located on the lowest level, away from exterior walls or windows, and underground. Manufactured or temporary structures, such as mobile homes or recreational vehicles (RVs), are unsafe during a tornado. Identifying an alternate shelter is critical if you are in a manufactured structure.