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Looking for Relief as Summer Heat Wave Hits Black and Brown Neighborhoods Hardest

A Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn bodega sells ice during a heatwave, July 21, 2020.
A Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, bodega sells ice during a heat wave, July 21, 2020.
Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

On uncomfortably hot summer days in the past, 76-year-old James Grant would leave his apartment at the Cassidy-Lafayette Houses in Staten Island to cool off at the Cassidy Coles Senior Center.

The center has been closed this summer because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The nearest cooling center is at Curtis High School, roughly a mile away from Grant’s home.

“I just don’t know with this heat,” Grant, who is retired and has no air conditioner at home, told THE CITY. “This last week has been brutal.”

Heat is the leading extreme weather-related killer in both New York City and in the U.S. Each year, the city records an average of 13 heat-stroke deaths and 450 heat-related emergency room visits, for ailments like heat exhaustion or dehydration, according to city statistics.

Grant is waiting for the New York City Housing Authority to install an air conditioner at his apartment, he said. Though temperatures again hit the high 90s this week, it had not yet been installed by Wednesday.

NYCHA referred requests for comment to the mayor’s office which did not respond to questions from THE CITY about the status of Grant’s air conditioner installation.

This week, the City Council passed a bill that would require the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene to “measure and report on the impact of extreme heat” on health — including annual tallies of heat-stress deaths attributed directly to the weather and deaths in which heat is believed to have exacerbated other medical conditions.

Reports would present key demographic data on deaths, such as age, race and neighborhood.

“The same communities that have been ravaged by COVID — Black and brown communities, the low-income, seniors, those with chronic health conditions — the same people that are right in the line of fire for COVID are at most at risk from extreme heat, and especially New York City summer heat, where you have that urban heat island effect,” said Councilmember Justin Brannan (D-Brooklyn) who introduced the bill.

Around half of those who died because of heat in New York City between 2000 and 2012 were Black, the most recent data available from the DOH shows. Older New Yorkers, those with limited incomes and people without air conditioning are more likely to get sick or die because of high temperatures, experts say.

Hot Neighborhoods

Not all neighborhoods weather the heat equally: Because of differences in environmental factors, like the distribution of trees, and social factors, like poverty, areas of the city where many Black and Latino New Yorkers live are often more vulnerable to the effects of high heat.

The heat vulnerability index, developed by city health officials in partnership with researchers at Columbia University and released five years ago, measures the risk of heat-related illness or death in neighborhoods across the city.

Neighborhoods are ranked from one, meaning low-risk, to five, the highest risk. Many of the neighborhoods in the South Bronx and Central Brooklyn are among the most high-risk, while the Upper West Side and Lower Manhattan are low-risk.

Seniors catch some shade on a hot summer day outside a Bed-Stuy adult center, July 21, 2020.
Catching some shade on a hot summer day outside a Bedford-Stuyvesant adult center.
Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

In June, researchers at the nonprofit Urban Design Forum, teaming with the Mayor’s Office of Resiliency, released a report that studied ways New York City could address extreme heat in some of the city’s most vulnerable neighborhoods, including Mott Haven, Flatbush and Central Harlem.

“Data shows that the neighborhoods hit hardest by coronavirus infections correlate with areas with lower household median income, more people of color, higher rates of uninsurance, and more crowded housing,” the report states.

“Many of these neighborhoods also face the worst impacts of climate change, including extreme heat,” it adds. “The response to the current pandemic must center these neighborhoods, especially as the outbreak and extreme heat may have cascading public health impacts.”

Recommendations highlighted policy changes and design strategies — including suggesting the city require landlords to maintain maximum building temperatures, much like the mandate for a minimum temperature in winter.

“Even though heat is the deadliest of our extreme weather events, we don’t treat it as seriously as we do cold weather,” said Daniel McPhee, executive director of the Urban Design Forum.

Cool Down

City-run cooling centers are only opened when the National Weather Service issues a heat advisory, meaning forecast temperatures hit 95 degrees two consecutive days, or on a 100-degree day, according to the city Office of Emergency Management.

That means on a standalone day when the mercury reaches 99, or a week of days at 94 degrees, for instance, the cooling centers won’t be open.

When asked why cooling centers weren’t open on a sweltering 93-degree day last week, an OEM spokesperson wrote: “These thresholds were developed through scientific studies by the City’s Health Department and are based on the temperatures at which we see significant health impacts among New Yorkers.”

A man practices floating in the shallow end of Harlem’s Wagner Pool, July 24, 2020.
Harlem’s Wagner Pool
Hiram Alejandro Durán/THE CITY

The city has a page where people can find a cooling center — but it only works on days that meet the above criteria.

When they are open, coronavirus disease is now another major concern. Cooling centers at senior center locations, which are closed to other age groups, limit capacity, follow social distancing protocols and offer face coverings and hand sanitizer, officials said. The centers do not provide social activities or meals.

Meanwhile, officials have also given more than 42,000 free air conditioners to low-income older adults since May, according to Dina Montes, a city Department for the Aging spokesperson.

“We want older New Yorkers to be safe from both COVID-19 and extreme heat and we plan to use all available city resources to make sure this happens,” Montes said in an email.

More information on air conditioners for New Yorkers over 60 can be found at the city’s 311 portal or by calling (718) 707-7771.

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