King County announced that it would be applying for a Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) grant to create its first heat mitigation strategy.
“I am reminded that it was a year ago that we experienced really the most significant climate event so far in the history of our region: an extreme heat event where some 38 people died in King County during the highest temperatures ever recorded in the history of our region,” said King County Executive Dow Constantine at a June 27 media briefing for the plan’s launch.
“It reinforced the reality that climate change is neither theoretical nor distant, but rather here and now,” he said. The FEMA grant would provide the county with $120,000 to come up with a plan, and the process would take about a year, according to King County Deputy Public Affairs Manager Anita Kissée.
Per the strategy’s announcement, it will “be an integrated approach that engages and mobilizes county departments, cities, communities, nonprofits, healthcare providers, and emergency responders. It will identify actions needed to enhance the region’s immediate response to extreme heat while adapting the built environment so that people and property are better prepared for more prolonged, hazardous heat waves that climate scientists predict unless there is a dramatic [decrease] in greenhouse gas emissions.”
The media briefing fell after a weekend of high temperatures, albeit nowhere near the extremes of last year. The 90-plus-degree heat did, however, serve to underscore the urgency of the issue.
“Climate change is recognized by public health and medical professionals as a health emergency. According to the World Health Organization, it is the biggest health threat facing humanity,” said Dr. Jeffrey Duchin, the Health Officer of Public Health–Seattle & King County.
While the strategy will not be ready until summer of 2023, the county did outline some changes in outreach and education around heat that they have already made.
They have, as outlined in the press conference, “created and distributed multi-language materials that inform the public on how to stay safe during heat waves; updated public health recommendations for extreme heat to better align with National Weather Service heat and health risk factors, which are similar to risk thresholds for air quality but tailored to the health risks of heat; increased the number of languages for emergency alerts from two to nine; and activated the Office of Emergency Management’s Trusted Partner Network of volunteers, who help ensure that everyone in King County — regardless of the language they speak — gets the lifesaving public information.”
Those improvements, however, can’t help physically cool people down if there is a heat dome this summer. At a June 28 rally held by climate justice organization 350 Seattle on the steps of Seattle City Hall — ironically gray and cloudy — activists took to the mic to call for concrete action. It was the anniversary of the hottest day of the previous year’s heat dome incident.
The campaign, called “Healthy Through Heat & Smoke,” calls for the city to convert all community centers to “resilience hubs” by adding heating, cooling and air filtration capacity using all clean energy sources by 2035. It would also direct the city to use union labor and recruit directly from the communities most impacted by climate change. Research by King County shows that during extreme heat events, temperatures in many areas of South Seattle — historically home to many of the city’s BIPOC residents — remained up to 20 degrees higher than elsewhere. The campaign’s goal is to get the project included in the upcoming Parks Levy.
Speaking in the shadow of the King County Jail, where inmates complained of intolerable conditions during last year’s heat dome, Renaissance, the co-director of Campaigns for 350 Seattle, highlighted the city’s current lack of air-conditioned public spaces for the people most affected by heat.
“They weren’t providing those resources last year,” Renaissance said, saying that only two of the city’s 26 community centers had air conditioning (Kristin Brown, a spokesperson for the city’s Sustainability and Environment Department, said three community centers have air conditioning).
Meredith Bodley, a youth organizer for 350 Seattle, marveled that we didn’t have more capacity already.
“It is hard to believe that in our wealthy, modern city, people are still dying from heat,” she said, as the crowd nodded in agreement. Following her, Jay, an activist with Stop the Sweeps who asked to be identified by his first name only, pointed out that the gross domestic product of the Seattle metro area is similar to countries like Singapore or Denmark.
“Clearly, there’s no shortage of funds,” he said. He said he was frustrated during the heat dome event that the city only had two members of its HOPE team doing outreach to let unhoused people know where to find cooling centers.
“What the hell is happening? And why is the city failing so many people?” he asked.
The city of Seattle, for its part, seems to be a little further ahead on heat mitigation than the county. It’ll be testing elements of its own heat mitigation plan this summer, much of which centers on awareness and early warnings.
However, it could include a “coordinated response with KCRHA to deploy cooling tents and provide heat safety information at encampments, Tiny House Villages, and RV parking sites during extreme heat,” Brown wrote.
It also calls for proactive outreach to seniors enrolled in case management programs. Nearly 50 percent of heat-related deaths in Washington were among people aged 65-79 last year, according to numbers released by the state’s Department of Health. Another 25 percent were among people aged 45-64. During last year’s heat event, unhoused people were still regularly excluded from cooler places like the downtown transit tunnel via no-loitering laws, Jay said.
Though the city has not added air conditioning to any community centers as of yet, it plans to bring two more online by summer of 2023, Brown said, and has the “ability to add more sites as needed by renting portable AC units for sites without AC.”
However, advocates for the unhoused say that more needs to be done now. In the absence of widespread air conditioning, people need cold water, wet towels or bandanas and other low-tech cooling solutions. In his speech, Jay from Stop the Sweeps said that the problem is that it’s only private volunteers providing those items.
He estimated that one organization crowdsourced more than $3,000 from its members to hand out waters and do direct aid during the extreme heat event.
That, he said, is not sustainable: “The city must provide people with more locations that are safe.
Read more of the July 6-12, 2022 issue.