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Extreme heat continues to grip much of the Southern U.S.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The newsman Dan Rather once said on TV that a close election was hotter than a Laredo, Texas, parking lot. This week, that parking lot is about as hot as it's been.

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

I'm glad I'm not in a Texas parking lot...

INSKEEP: Yeah.

FADEL: ...Because much of the Southern U.S. is under heat advisories, and that includes Texas. The heat is straining the power grid and breaking temperature records.

INSKEEP: Mose Buchele is with member station KUT in Austin and is covering this and I hope not being too hot while doing it. Good morning.

MOSE BUCHELE, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: How is this different from every other hot summer in Texas?

BUCHELE: Well, usually it's, like, in July and August when we get this big heat. But here we are in June and we're breaking a ton of heat records, including the heat index, which is that feels-like temperature. So here in Austin last week, we hit 118 degrees. In San Antonio, it was 116 heat index. In Dallas, it hit 117. And it's important to say that we're talking about the heat and the humidity here, right? So that's unusual in a lot of the state where heat waves are often associated with drought. This humidity is keeping it very hot overnight. People are obviously trying to stay inside if they can. And a lot of cities have set up cooling centers.

INSKEEP: OK, so you can't say that thing about, well, it's a dry heat. You can't dismiss it in that way.

BUCHELE: Exactly (laughter).

INSKEEP: So what if you have to work outside?

BUCHELE: It's really tough. I was out yesterday. I ran into a guy named Andre Southall (ph). He's a welder here in Austin who was on a job site outside. I asked him to describe what it's been like.

ANDRE SOUTHALL: Unbearable, you know? So you have to take precautions.

BUCHELE: Right, Southall says that means taking breaks and, of course, staying hydrated, drinking water. This is something that's getting a lot of attention right now because Texas Governor Greg Abbott just signed a law ending mandatory water breaks for construction workers. So like, here in Austin, for example, we had a local rule that said workers needed water breaks in the heat. State Republicans ended those worker protections. Southall's worried about that.

SOUTHALL: You know, you can't just tell a construction worker that's working in 100-degree heat - the heat index being 112, 15 - that they can't stop and take water. That's cruel and unusual punishment, I believe.

BUCHELE: Worth remembering that extreme heat causes more deaths in the U.S. than any other kind of natural disaster. That's according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

INSKEEP: Have people died from this heat then?

BUCHELE: Oh, yeah. There have been several reports around the state. That includes nine heat-related deaths in Webb County around Laredo, a mail carrier who died on the job last week in Dallas when the heat index was around 115 degrees. Some of these deaths are still under investigation. But obviously, there may be many more that we're not aware of right now.

INSKEEP: People are naturally going to wonder how much of a factor is climate change here.

BUCHELE: Yeah, human-caused climate change means more intense and more frequent heat waves. I talked to Victor Murphy. He's a climate program manager at the National Weather Service in Fort Worth. And he says a warmer atmosphere just holds more humidity.

VICTOR MURPHY: So as far as climate change fingerprints, I would say perhaps the increase in humidity and water vapor in the atmosphere, you know, and these ridiculously high dew points that we saw.

BUCHELE: Another climate fingerprint, like Murphy says, could be a weakening jet stream. That's basically an air current that circles the globe. A weaker jet stream means weather can get stuck in place like we're seeing with this heat over the South.

INSKEEP: You know, I'm remembering the extreme cold in Texas a couple of years back, which devastated the power grid. I guess heat can also put a lot of strain on the grid.

BUCHELE: Yeah, absolutely. I'm keeping my eyes on the Texas grid, how it holds up. We set a new record for energy demand yesterday with everyone turning up their ACs. It looks like we'll do it again today, probably. The other question is how this early heat could introduce drought again to the state that could lead to more heat later in the summer, July and August. So this really could just be the first chapter in a really scorching Texas summer this year.

INSKEEP: Mose Buchele with KUT. Stay cool.

BUCHELE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mose Buchele is the Austin-based broadcast reporter for KUT's NPR partnership StateImpact Texas . He has been on staff at KUT 90.5 since 2009, covering local and state issues. Mose has also worked as a blogger on politics and an education reporter at his hometown paper in Western Massachusetts. He holds masters degrees in Latin American Studies and Journalism from UT Austin.