Although there will be days in August when people may question this point, some experts say it’s virtually impossible for the outdoor heat index in Louisiana to get as high as 172 or 195 degrees.
What they’re saying runs counter to allegations made in a lawsuit filed last month in federal court in Baton Rouge on behalf of several death row inmates. The lawsuit claims heat indexes in the death row block at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola reached 172 degrees last year and 195 degrees in 2011.
The heat index — a combination of humidity and temperature — is used to convey what the air feels like, says Luigi Romolo, regional climatologist with the Southern Regional Climate Center.
Asked if it’s possible for the outdoor heat index in Louisiana to get as high as 172 or 195 degrees, he answered: “I would say no.”
Using a heat index calculator, he said if the temperature were 105 degrees and the dew point 82 degrees, both on the extreme high end in Louisiana, the outdoor heat index would reach 133 degrees.
Dew point — the temperature at which dew forms — is an indication of how much moisture is in the air.
When areas in Louisiana reach a temperature above 100, Romolo said, it’s because the dew point is a lot lower, which in turn lowers the heat index.
The allegations of heat indexes of 172 to 195 degrees are “outrageously” high, Romolo said. “I’d be surprised if that’s been hit anywhere in the world to be honest.
“Anything above 120 (degrees) would be unheard of,” he said. “They have to be a mistake unless they’re calculating them in a different way from the way the National Weather Service does it,” Romolo said. “To get it up that high, you would need Arizona’s extreme temperatures with Louisiana’s extreme humidity and I don’t think that’s ever happened here.”
Wade Shows, one of the attorneys representing the state Department of Public Safety and Corrections, said the expert the agency retained for the case has said there’s “something impossible” about the plaintiffs’ calculations. “The numbers are impossible to achieve in the southern United States.”
Part of the problem, Shows said, is that the plaintiffs took temperatures at the prison but used humidity figures taken in Baton Rouge. “That’s problematic,” Shows said.
If it were possible for a heat index to reach 172 or 195 degrees as the lawsuit alleges, “it’s unlikely someone would survive at that heat for prolonged exposure,” said Katie Sweeney, health communications specialist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Dr. Jimmy Guidry, state health officer, said he doesn’t know of studies that looked at atmospheric temperatures as they relate to heat-related injuries or death, but said when the body temperature gets to 104 degrees, problems start to occur.
Usually heat-related illnesses are seen in people who are active outside in the heat and sun and with people who haven’t taken the time to acclimate themselves to the heat. With the increased use of air conditioning, people could experience problems they go for a jog in the heat of the day without having eased their body into the temperature change, he said.
“The body is quite capable to adapting, but it takes time to acclimate,” Guidry said. “The body can adjust to quite a bit of heat and quite a bit of humidity.”
Some things that can help is drinking lots of fluid, a cool shower, a wet towel, and staying out of the sun, he said.
“If they truly had that high of temperatures,” Guidry said of the lawsuit allegations, “the body would show signs.”
Documents filed by the state in the lawsuit show that the three death-row inmates named in the lawsuit, Elzie Ball, James Magee and Nathaniel Code, made no heat-related complaints to prison officials during the past several years.
Signs of heat exhaustion include heavy sweating, weakness, a fast pulse, nausea and fainting, according to the CDC. Serious heat stroke symptoms include a body temperature of above 103 degrees, rapid and strong pulse and possible unconsciousness.
Nilay Vora, one of the attorneys for the inmates, said he couldn’t comment for this story because it’s an ongoing case.
“I can’t comment on what the CDC says or doesn’t say,” he said.
On July 2, a federal judge ordered the collection of temperature information at the prison for 21 days before the case goes to trial Aug. 5.