Heatwave plus COVID-19 equal a strain on city reso...

Heatwave plus COVID-19 equal a strain on city resources

sunset in dark orange sky behind dark tree branches

In light of the 90-plus degree temperatures and high humidity, the city of Detroit announced Tuesday that it would open the Farwell, Patton, Crowell, Adams Butzel and Kemeny recreation centers to provide cooling from noon until 8 p.m. 

During normal times, the city operates cooling centers at 15 community and recreation centers and 21 libraries that provide air conditioning on most days. Now, only five facilities provide cooling across the city’s 139 square miles.

Heatwaves are by far the deadliest weather events affecting American cities, according to Eric Klinenberg, author of the book Heatwave about Chicago’s deadly 1995 heat event.

“Heat is the great killer,” Klinenberg said in a recent webinar. “It kills more people in a typical year than all the so-called natural disasters combined in the United States. Heat is a killer of African Americans, poor people, older people and it doesn’t get enough attention.”

Detroit has many of the same issues of abandonment and disinvestment that Klinenberg says made the 1995 Chicago heat wave so deadly, killing an estimated 739 people. Among other things, Detroiters lack air-conditioning and face water and electricity insecurity, which have the potential to make heat waves more dangerous.

And now Detroit confronts a summer where COVID-19 cases are rising dramatically across the nation, with some of the summer’s hottest weeks still to come, part of a long-term trend in warming that has seen average temperatures in the city increase by 3.3 degrees Fahrenheit since 1970 with night time temperatures rising by 5.5 degrees. The rise in nighttime temperatures is especially dangerous because an inability to cool down for a period of time can be a major contributor to heatwave mortality.

Klinenberg emphasized the double-bind that people find themselves in right now.

“What we need this summer to get through COVID is physical distance, indoors especially; it’s physical proximity that makes us vulnerable,” he said. “But there’s never been a time when we need to be more socially connected than we’re going to need to be this summer.”

Klinenberg says the answer to both problems lies in social solidarity or engaging in mutual aid. In a heat wave, that may look like checking on ill or elderly neighbors and contributing to food banks or other resources for those in need. Government can play a role by providing emergency assistance and resources like cooling centers. Yet, often these solutions come with their own difficulties, especially when multiple disasters are being managed simultaneously.  

The problem with cooling centers and air conditioning

The potential for COVID-19 to spread among people using cooling centers has been a major topic of concern among public health experts. Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health warned in a paper that “sheltering in place can quickly become sweltering in place”. They referenced a number of strategies that cities are using to deal with these threats that include renting hotel rooms for homeless people and creating a “texting buddy-system” to help residents check in on one another. 

Jeremy Thomas, communications and marketing manager for Detroit Parks and Recreation, says the department assessed the capacity that can be safely accommodated at indoor rec centers and that staff will do temperature checks and monitor visitors to ensure social distancing. He says they’ve also “designated a number of PPE” (personal protective equipment) that will be available.

Vickie Winn, director of communications for the Detroit Health Department, told Planet Detroit that numbers will be limited to around 30 people per facility.

“We’ve been assured from the rec department that they don’t get 30 people anyway,” she added.

However, this low level of use might point to a larger problem with the cooling center model. 

“How do we even get people to the rec centers?” Sandra Turner-Handy, engagement director for the Michigan Environmental Council, asked. “That’s why they’re probably underutilized, because people can’t get to them.”

Transportation isn’t the only issue with cooling centers. Larissa Larsen, a professor of urban and regional planning at the University of Michigan says that residents are often unaware that they even exist. And if people do know that cooling centers are an option, she says they may avoid them because, “their behavior is limited there. You can’t take your pet. You can’t smoke there.”

Given Detroit’s sprawling footprint, helping people stay cool at home may be a better option than cooling centers for most residents. But this poses its own difficulties in a city where Larsen’s research has shown that about two-thirds of people don’t have air conditioning.

Joel Howrani Heeres, Detroit’s director of sustainability, says that air-conditioning–which releases waste heat into the air – can contribute to the urban heat island effect, where roofs and pavement trap heat, making cities hotter than surrounding areas. This can increase the cost for residents who are running fans and air conditioning. 

Detroiters already suffer from a high energy burden — with low-income households often paying between 5% and 15% of their income on electricity — and poor reliability, coping with some of the nation’s longest power outages. Hotter cities could make bills even more expensive and contribute to more outages like the blackouts that affected many low-income neighborhoods in New York City during last summer’s heatwave.

Long term solutions

Howrani Heeres and Larsen stress the importance of tree planting, home weatherization and the use of neighborhood “resiliency hubs” for cooling and other services as long term solutions for climate adaptability. Heeres says that a good tree canopy can make a neighborhood 10 to 20 degrees cooler than areas without one. Detroit began a program to plant 10,000 trees several years ago and Larsen says this is a good start for re-establishing an urban canopy that was hit hard by Dutch elm disease and emerald ash borer.

Home weatherization can also help people stay cool in place. The same investments in glazing windows and insulation that keeps homes warm can also help with cooling. The city has made this part of its Sustainability Action Agenda, and Larsen said these improvements could be directed to the lowest income areas of the city that are most vulnerable to heat stress.

Howrani Heeres says the city is looking at the 20 census tracts that are most vulnerable to climate change and thinking about ways to dramatically increase tree planting there.

Maps courtesy Joel Howrani Heeres / Larissa Larsen

Another strategy being considered is resiliency hubs, a relatively new concept that could help by providing neighborhoods with places that have backup power for either heat or cooling, and where residents can perhaps also charge their cell-phones and get a bite to heat. The city is considering working with organizations like the Eastside Community Network to place these hubs in schools or churches that already have a relationship with communities and don’t carry the same baggage as government-run facilities.

But what about right now?  

Unfortunately, tree planting or future resiliency hubs won’t help Detroit this summer. Larsen says that Ann Arbor is considering using electric busses as mobile cooling units, a strategy that might be especially helpful in Detroit where there are large distances between cooling centers.

Meanwhile, New York has purchased 74,000 air conditioners for low-income residents to help them stay cool in place over the summer. Winn said that this solution was impractical for Detroit on account of the stress it might place on the electrical grid, a reality that was seconded by others interviewed for this article. Turner-Handy said that purchasing fans and bottled water for vulnerable residents might be a more realistic approach.

Winn acknowledged that cooling centers were a tough sell for people that “like the comforts of their own home”, adding that there are “a lot of other options” for Detroiters trying to stay cool. But with city facilities operating at a fraction of their normal numbers, many businesses closed and people staying home from work and avoiding restaurants or other gathering places, many Detroiters will likely have many fewer options for cooling this summer.

On top of these issues, people may simply be too exhausted from dealing with problems like the coronavirus pandemic, concerns over police violence and high unemployment to worry much about heat. Larsen acknowledged the difficulty of thinking about the heat in the midst of so many other problems, saying that with heat emergencies, “It’s not important to you until it happens.”

Brian Allnutt is a writer living in Detroit. He covers open space, environmental justice, food and gardening.