Missouri's deadliest summer temperatures in a decade kill 39

Thursday, October 20, 2011 | 7:50 p.m. CDT

KANSAS CITY — The heat dome that settled over the nation this past summer, bringing record temperatures and thick tropical air, claimed more than 60 lives in the Midwestern states of Kansas and Missouri, the latest numbers show.

Preliminary figures show Missouri ended the blistering summer of 2011 with 39 confirmed heat-related deaths, the largest number in a decade. Kansas, in its first year of tracking heat-related deaths, reported 23.

In the Kansas City area alone, health officials investigated 30 suspected heat-related deaths and announced this week that 20 were indeed related to soaring temperatures, according to the Kansas City Health Department. Those deaths occurred from June 5 to Aug. 9 as temperatures often approached and surpassed the century mark.

"We had a lot more folks who were caught by the heat," said Bill Snook, a spokesman for the health department.

Those affected included people who were in their homes, working outside, sitting on porches for a long time and those who might have had contributing health problems, he said.

The victims included two participants in an extreme obstacle course event in July called the Warrior Dash. Jeff Fink, 31, of Olathe, Kan., and Jeremy Morris, 28, of suburban Grandview, collapsed during the event and later died. High humidity pushed the heat index in Kansas City to above 100 degrees that weekend and forced officials to cancel the final 90 minutes of the two-day race.

The National Weather Service said there were four days that hit or surpassed 100 degrees in July at the Kansas City International Airport. The average July temperature was 93 degrees in the city, putting this year's numbers 4.7 degrees above normal for the month.

Making the problem even worse was above-average humidity that led to numerous heat advisories and warnings throughout the summer, said Dave Beusterien, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Pleasant Hill, a Kansas City suburb.

"A lot of times when we have our heat, the humidity is not real high," Beusterien said. "For June and July, our heat was combined with high humidity. That was a complicating factor. As far as how it feels, the temperature doesn't tell the whole story."

In the St. Louis metropolitan area, 13 people died, according to the state Department of Health & Senior Services. Six others died elsewhere in Missouri, state health officials said.

The last time Missouri surpassed this year's total was in 2001, when it recorded 40 heat-related deaths. The state's record of 295 heat deaths occurred during the sweltering summer of 1980.

John Shelton, a spokesman for the St. Louis County Health Department, said getting people to take the threat seriously was sometimes challenging.

"In some cases, people had working air conditioners but wouldn't turn them on, and it was frankly frustrating for us," Shelton said. "Some of the relatives would tell us they couldn't get the victim to turn on the air conditioning because of the utility cost."

The extreme temperatures were what led the Kansas Department of Health and Environment to track heat deaths for the first time, said Barbara Hersh, a spokeswoman for the department.

She said there isn't a requirement that health care providers report each heat-related incident. But the agency closely monitored the death certificates and sought information from health care providers. Besides the 23 death certificates it received in which heat was a cause or contributing factor, emergency rooms and other health facilities reported treating 565 people suffering from the heat, according to numbers last updated just this month.

"We wanted a picture of the health outcomes associated with the triple-digit temperatures we were seeing this summer and to remind Kansans of the dangers that exist when people of all ages are subjected to those weather conditions," Hersh said.

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