PHOENIX — David Hondula recently got a job he never dreamed of — perhaps because it never existed before.
He’s the director of Phoenix’s Office of Heat Response and Mitigation, which is touted as the first publicly funded municipal office of its kind.
Hondula said he recognizes the “monumental task” he faces during a time of severe drought and rising heat, but he looks forward to the challenge of helping Phoenix handle climate change.
“It’s an exciting time to be moving into this role,” said Hondula, who once questioned whether there was anything worth studying about heat.
The Office of Heat Response and Mitigation was officially announced in September. Phoenix is one of the fastest warming cities in the country, according to a Climate Central report based on government data, and in June, the metro area endured a record six consecutive days of temperatures over 115 degrees. Globally, July was the hottest month on record, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
“We are kicking off a citywide approach to addressing the heat,” Mayor Kate Gallego said Oct. 4. “We hope to improve the way we build buildings, we hope to plant more trees, we hope to save more lives of those who are most vulnerable in our community. We know that heat has to be at the forefront as a desert city, and Phoenix wants to lead the way in finding solutions to making our city safer and more sustainable.”
Heat is the No. 1 weather-related killer in the U.S., killing an average of 138 people a year from 1990 to 2019, according to NOAA. In 2020, heat killed 313 people in Arizona alone, state data shows.
Phoenix has committed to stopping that trend.
“This is not a temporary commitment. We’re remaking Phoenix government with this [office],” Gallego said.
The City Council in May approved a budget that included $2.8 million focused on climate change and heat readiness. Gallego said Hondula’s team will collaborate with other city departments, such as Parks and Recreation and Street Transportation — which already have programs to address rising temperatures.
The new office will have a staff of four and has two project manager positions yet to fill. One will focus on increasing the tree canopy throughout Phoenix. The goal is to reach 25 percent tree canopy cover in the city by 2030. The other will focus on built infrastructure — increasing shade structures and developing ways to cool structures and streets, particularly at night.
Gallego said she’s excited to work with someone who “makes the data case for why these investments make sense” and will make sure taxpayer dollars are effectively used to address climate change.
“He is going to be able to take us to the next level, so that when there’s an exciting new solution, it’s coming from Phoenix,” Gallego said of Hondula.
Hondula was born and raised in New Jersey, about 25 miles inland from the Atlantic shore, and says his interest in weather started before he could remember.
Hurricane Floyd came through New Jersey in 1999, when he was 14.
“I very specifically remember being out with my parents’ VHS camcorder trying to document how fast the water was flowing in the flooded creek near where we lived,” he said.
Hondula went on to earn his doctorate in environmental sciences from the University of Virginia in 2013, but he never had a specific interest in heat.
“I didn’t even know there was anything interesting to study about heat,” he recalled.
Arizona, a place he visited at a young age and “always had a fondness for,” was the perfect landing spot.
To this day, he said he prefers the hottest Arizona day to the “hottest and muggiest day” in Virginia.
You can count on one hand the number of comparable “heat offices” around the world. In April, Miami-Dade County announced Jane Gilbert would be its interim chief heat officer — the first in the U.S. This position is funded by the Extreme Heat Resilience Alliance, which aims to reduce extreme heat risk for the most vulnerable populations.
Gilbert, who previously served as Miami-Dade’s resilience officer addressing climate change and emergency response, said the heat governance discussion in Miami was brought on by other weather disasters.
“After Hurricane Irma in 2017, we lost 12 people in the county north of us at a nursing home because of the widespread, extended power outage,” she said. Florida law now requires assisted living facilities to have backup generators to provide air conditioning during power outages.
Miami is at high risk for rising sea levels and hurricanes, Gilbert said, but in canvasses of community members, heat concerns came up the most, especially in socioeconomically vulnerable areas.
Like Phoenix, the Miami office aims to protect people who are most at risk.
“All of these increasing shocks and stresses related to climate change impact our most vulnerable first and most,” she said. “So the solutions need to have an equity lens.”
Miami-Dade; Athens, Greece; and Freetown, Sierra Leone, are the only places with city officials in charge of managing heat.
Hondula runs the first publicly funded heat response office in Phoenix, where temperatures continue to set records. In 2020, Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport reported a record 53 days above 110 degrees Fahrenheit, according to the Arizona Department of Health Services.
Hondula’s battlefield is one of the hottest cities in the country in a global fight against climate change. But he believes that every heat-related death is preventable.
“I think the measure of success for the office, although it is challenging, is to see those numbers come down,” he said.
Increasing tree cover will be one of the primary focuses for his office. The development and expansion of programs like cool pavement will also be used to reduce the urban heat island effect — when built environments absorb heat and reemit it, causing rising temperatures in the city.
For Gallego, this office is another step in her progressive approach to climate change.
“For me, this has been a careerwide challenge,” she said. “It’s key to Phoenix that we lead on issues of climate and sustainability. I want it to be part of what we’re known for.”
Now a community under siege from rising temperatures has an ally in the city government. And Hondula sees community engagement as an integral part of the office’s success.
“Heat will be part of the future success story of Phoenix as a booming and growing city, and the chance to be part of that is really special,” he said.