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Black Neighborhoods Are Preparing for Scorching Summer Temperatures

Black communities are prioritizing their well-being by leading heat preparation workshops, sharing resources, and more.

After closing out May with four days of triple-digit temperatures and New Orleans’ first heat advisory of the season, the group of mainly Black elders welcomed the “dip” in temperature on June 1.

Still, it swelled to 96 degrees that morning as roughly 35 people huddled in a community center in the city’s Upper Ninth Ward. They were there to learn about the “urban heat island” effect and how they could better prepare for the region’s increasingly longer and hotter summers.

As facilitator Jordan Mychal explained the urban heat island effect — the phenomenon where urban areas experience higher temperatures because of air pollution, dense infrastructure, and reduced tree coverage — the group lamented about times past and how their tried-and-true ways of combating heat no longer worked for today’s sweltering summers. Over the next 30 years, New Orleans is expected to experience the nation’s fourth-largest increase in heat waves, but it is a nationwide issue.

Since the 1960s, the average number of heat waves every year across the country has more than tripled. Nationwide, the issue has led to a 900% increase in heat-related deaths compared to then. Indigenous people and Black people have experienced the worst effects. It kills more people every year than hurricanes, floods, and tornadoes — combined.

Last month, representatives from the federal Health and Human Services Department declared deaths from heat as the greatest threat to human health as a result of climate change. But the nation’s attempts to address the disparate impacts have largely fallen flat.

This summer, the number of people hospitalized and dying due to blistering conditions is only expected to rise. Every region of the country, except Alaska, is forecasted to experience a hotter-than-normal summer.

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In the face of the threats, Black communities across the country have had to take their well-being into their own hands, as federal and state resources and protections from scorching temperatures have failed to meet the moment. Across the nation, Black neighborhood associations, community land co-ops, and nonprofit organizations have led heat preparation workshops, shared resources for water, fans, and transportation, and planned disaster networks that prioritize checking on elders and the most vulnerable during oppressive heat waves.

Jesse Perkins, 63, says he already noticed how rising temperatures have altered his life, and he wants to make sure that it doesn’t completely consume his city.

“I’m concerned because it feels like we are too late for solutions. Now it’s all about adaptability,” he said.

Perkins first began taking climate and environmental injustices seriously after living in the majority-Black Gordon Plaza housing complex in New Orleans, which was built on top of a toxic, cancer-causing landfill.

“We can’t wait for the possibility that the people who are responsible for a lot of what’s going on or the people in power are going to take action,” he added.

To learn more tips on how to protect yourself during heatwaves, click here to read Capital B’s heat guide.

“Entering a New Reality”: Extreme Heat

Last August, as Chicago smashed its daily heat index record of 120 degrees, the city’s cooling centers in its Black neighborhoods sat empty. It underscored a deadly reality for Black communities across the nation, where households are less likely to have air conditioners and regular access to drinking water, and where the largest concentration of heat-related deaths are found.

But Capital B found community members bridging the resource gaps, as Black residents set up stands to offer free cold water and door knocked their neighborhoods to check on older residents. Nearly 30 years before, the city experienced the nation’s most deadly heat wave in modern history, as 739, mainly Black elders, perished in the heat.

These are decisions and actions that are going to become more commonplace at the family and neighborhood level, said J. Marshall Shepherd, director of the University of Georgia’s Atmospheric Sciences Program.

“Because of climate warming, heat is starting to become a significant stressor on things that people take for granted — our ability to go to work or take classes in a properly cooled school,” he said. And the prevalence of these heat waves continue to outpace the government’s measures to adapt.

“We’re entering a new realm where people are going to have to make decisions about whether they can work or go outside on a given day because we’re starting to see heat in places that we didn’t expect to see,” Shepherd added.

Between 1979 and 2020, the nation saw more than 2,000 people die due to the effects of extreme heat in only one summer, the summer of the Chicago heat wave. But now the country is on a three-year streak of eclipsing that grim milestone, as the heat dome has reached virtually every pocket of the nation.

Last summer, the death certificates of more than 2,300 people in the United States mentioned the effects of excessive heat. It is the highest number in 45 years of records.

As the nation’s electric grid slips into disrepair, a major issue driving these deaths is the growth in heat-induced power outages.

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At the peak of this deadly onslaught last summer, the Biden administration began drafting the first ever federal heat safety standards for U.S. workers. Yet, any progress he’s made in addressing how the suffocating warmth has upended the lives of Americans will melt away if he is not reelected in November. A recent New York Times investigation with several Republican leaders found that initiatives like his Office of Climate Change and Health Equity and the proposed heat protection rule for workers will “very likely be shelved and ignored.”

At the same time, few cities or states have implemented their own heat precautions. Just a handful of cities, like Los Angeles and Phoenix, have heat offices that oversee response efforts, and just six states — all of which with small Black populations — have passed regulations to protect people from heat. Meanwhile, the states with the largest growing Black populations, Florida and Texas, have passed state laws blocking local ordinances that protect homeowners, renters, and workers from heat.

It’s these discrepancies that are driving neighborhood groups to take control. Last year, Mychal and his neighbors in the Ninth Ward began organizing the Small and Mighty Land Co-op to help increase communal land ownership opportunities in the Black neighborhood with an eye toward land stewardship and helping to build climate resilience in the often threatened community. Many of the older members of the group were displaced by Hurricane Katrina, which infamously drowned the neighborhood.

Throughout the meeting, over sandwiches and coffee, the group shared tips with each other that they’ve learned in the aftermath of tragedy. One resident explained how he purposely leaves his home during the day to sit in the library or the city’s cooling centers. It offers him a place to be social and allows him to save on electricity bills. Other residents gave ideas on how to cool their homes without using air conditioning and pointed their neighbors to New Orleans’ specific tools to wipe out utility bill debt before this season of extreme weather.

Their recent heat wave workshop was one of many focused on climate threats. The next one is focused on the impending hurricane season.

“These kinds of workshops are so important because the access to knowledge and resources is not usually accessible to people in our communities. One-third of the people in the neighborhood don’t have internet, so how are they getting the information otherwise?” Mychal said.

The group’s next endeavor is focused on creating a neighborhood level shuttle system to get residents to and from the community center, which doubles as a cooling center during heatwaves, and to and from places like the grocery store.

“Inevitably what happens in neighborhoods is that you feel like the city or the state should be coming to help you, but when you work to be a true neighbor then you realize there is a shared responsibility across the board,” Mychal said. “You get yourself out there thinking of others and how we can work together to do this for us and ourselves, instead of waiting on the [governmental] support that has been denied to us over and over and over again.”

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