(USA TODAY) - Make no mistake: This blistering heat wave now gripping much of the country remains remarkable both for its intensity and duration.
"With the number of days of extreme heat and humidity of the current heat wave, it may be more significant and impact a larger area than the deadly 1995 heat wave," AccuWeather meteorologist Jim Andrews said. Chicago was ground zero in the 1995 heat wave, he said, where the death toll was 750 over the four-day episode.
This week's heat wave has killed at least 22 people across the USA, a death toll that remains a far cry from the carnage of 1995. It begs the question why.
The main reasons appear to be more community outreach, better communication of heat warnings and danger and greater awareness, community leaders said.
In Chicago, "we want to make sure the patient comes in and immediately gets back to a bed and right to a doctor," said Kaleem Malik, the chairman of the Department of Emergency Medicine at Saint Anthony Hospital. Everything else can wait, he said, such as taking down information or checking records. The city has seen no heat-related deaths yet in this heat wave, the Chicago Tribune reported.
In Louisville, where high temperatures have been above 90 degrees for four days, with stifling humidity, no deaths have been reported this week.
Chris Poynter, spokesman for the Louisville mayor's office, credited a system called Operation White Flag, which puts a white flag outside homeless shelters to signal people they can take refuge there. "When that flag is up, that means no one can be turned away," he said.
"Even if it means sleeping on a cot on the floor, we will find a place for them. It's a place to get water, food, get hydrated, take a shower if they want to."
Nationally, the American College of Emergency Physicians "puts out press releases and alerts to really try to emphasize for people to watch out for the heat, to stay cool, and to check on elderly neighbors," said David Seaberg, president-elect of the organization.
In Minnesota, which saw high tempertures in the mid- to upper-90s this week, "the press has done a good job of alerting people," said Eric Christianson, an emergency medical physician with the Minnesota Medical Center in Fairview. "If people have any of the normal resources, then they're able to deal with it," he said.
In New York, which is bracing for the worst of the heat wave today through Saturday, "we have hundreds of cooling stations all around the state, which could be a municipal library, a school, anything where we can provide air conditioning and water," said Dennis Michalski, spokesman for the New York State Office of Emergency Management.
According to the National Weather Service, 33 states were under heat advisories and warnings on Wednesday in a direct line from western Nebraska to southern Maine, a distance of almost 1,600 miles.
A total of 100 million people were affected by the heat advisories Wednesday.
Chicago had a heat index of 108 degrees on Wednesday afternoon, The Weather Channel reported. The heat index measures how hot it feels when humidity is added to the actual air temperature.
On Tuesday, at least 17 states hit the 100-degree mark, while more than 40 surpassed 90 degrees, AccuWeather reported.
Roads and sidewalks across many cities and towns from Oklahoma to Pennsylvania have buckled in the extreme temperatures.
Nationwide, the heat is putting significant stress on the nation's power grid. Today and Friday are expected to be hotter than any time since 1950 for many areas, said Travis Hartman, the Energy Weather Manager at MDA Earthstat, which provides forecasts for utilities.
"It's going to mean elevated power demand for an extended period of time for a lot of people," he said.
The dangerous heat will peak Thursday through Saturday in the East, as winds turn west to southwest over the Northeast and tap into the hot, humid air from the Midwest and South, said Weather Channel meteorologist Jon Erdman. The heat will ease in the northern Plains and upper Midwest during that same time, he added.
The break in the heat there will likely only be temporary, as the heat is forecast to build back into the Midwest by next week, said Weather Channel meteorologist Brian Fortier.
The hoary cliché, "it's not the heat, it's the humidity," appears to be accurate.
The heavy rain throughout the spring in the upper Midwest and northern Plains is helping to raise the humidity levels across the region during this heat wave, Fortier said.
"The temperatures aren't as hot because of all the moisture," he said.
But the humidity is making the heat "just as bad if not worse than the historic heat waves," Fortier said.