On the morning of Aug. 2, just before the month got off to a scorching start, a member of Camp Second Chance — a tent city located on Myers Way in West Seattle — lifted his remedy for the long, sizzling week ahead: a plastic cup full of water.
“Hydration,” he said.
Just before the punishing temperatures arrived, the National Weather Service issued an “Excessive Heat Warning” for almost every patch of land between Everett and Chehalis, in effect from Tuesday, Aug. 1 through Friday, Aug. 4. The issue became more complicated when wildfires in British Columbia left a smoky haze that extended as far south as Portland.
In response to the heat warning, Seattle Mayor Ed Murray’s office sent out a press release urging citizens to drink water throughout the day and avoid beverages containing dehydrating ingredients like caffeine, alcohol or sugar. The press release also listed and mapped 29 air-conditioned locations and 34 pools around the city that would function as “cooling centers” for residents.
Cooling centers are especially important to homeless people, for whom long days under a hot sun can prove just as dangerous as the dead of winter.
People don’t realize that cold weather is not the only danger homeless people face, said Elizabeth Griffin, a spokesperson for Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission (UGM). UGM provides recovery and emergency care to homeless people in Seattle.
“The temperature can be up to 20 degrees hotter in the city’s urban heat islands because there is so much concrete and so many buildings,” Griffin said. “It’s very different than if you’re living in the suburbs and there’s a lot of green space around.”
UGM team members often know by name the people who live on nearby streets, and this relationship helped teams check for medical issues during the four-day heat wave.
“We have teams going out during the day and then for our usual search-and-rescue at night, and they’re looking for symptoms of heat-related illness,” Griffin said. “If they see somebody that looks like they’re affected badly by the heat, they will take them to Harborview [Medical Center] or call the paramedics.”
Kristine Scott, executive director of the ROOTS Young Adult Shelter, said that she hadn’t yet seen any signs of heat exhaustion or other medical issues, but mentioned that problems are often not identified until after a crisis has passed.
Scott added that homeless youth are generally more resilient in such circumstances than older people, a notion that was echoed by Brittny Nielsen, a spokesperson for YouthCare, an organization that supports homeless youth with a shelter and drop-in center.
The cooling centers became a focal point for many, with Scott and Griffin each mentioning that they promoted the cooling centers within their organizations.
Water was the other common refrain of the week, sounding across the city again and again.
“We have a canopy with huge tubs of ice water,” Griffin said. “We’re just giving out water, cups of water, a steady stream of it, all day long, every day during this hot weather.”
YouthCare prepared for the heat wave by stocking up on water bottles and organizing a filling station for those with reusable water bottles, Nielsen said.
Although hydration is key, beating the heat is a multi-strategy game.
Nielsen said YouthCare’s focus has been on water and sunscreen, but other items like fans and cold snacks are also important.
“We’ve also been seeing people want to eat meals that are less hot,” Nielsen said. “For our lunch and dinner options, we’ve been thinking about things that maybe aren’t hot food, but are still nutritious and interesting.”
As long as it’s cold, it’s useful in battling the Seattle blaze.
“We are going through lots of popsicles at the kid’s club, and at the different shelters,” said Linda Mitchell, director of communications at Mary’s Place, a day center for homeless women.
The grueling heat was somewhat less oppressive on Seattle’s waterfront, thanks to a soothing breeze that carried the smell of water and sand over the boardwalk. Dave Smith stationed himself at a fountain near the Seattle Aquarium. He was helping a friend sell bottles of water to passersby.
Smith said that many people, especially those who are homeless, fail to recognize the importance of drinking water.
“A lot of people go to the bars and drink coffee or alcohol,” he said. “They don’t realize that what they really need is water.”
Two other items that Smith identified as underrated but valuable are sunscreen and umbrellas.
Despite the hardships that come with spending a day in the sun, Smith indicated that the heat wave brought opportunity along with it, in the form of boardwalk tourists willing to pay for water.
“It gives people like us a chance to make five bucks,” he said.
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