Coronavirus and Extreme Heat Are ‘on a Collision Course’ as NYC Summer Begins

Photo
by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Among the initiatives to combat extreme heat, the de Blasio
administration launched a program to provide free air conditioners
to vulnerable New Yorkers.

It was a hot summer morning in the Bronx on Tuesday, June 23,
with temperatures climbing into the high 80s. Jose Batista, an
81-year-old tenant in the New York City Housing Authority’s
(NYCHA) Mitchel Houses, was getting ready to head outside for some
fresh air and to cool down.

“I can’t deal with this in the apartment,” Batista says in
Spanish. “Now, at least outside with the trees and my mask on, I
could put up with it a little more, because with this humidity, I
can’t. I can’t.”

His window-unit air conditioner was old and not working
properly, so someone had recently uninstalled it, he says. Now,
he’s requested a new one from NYCHA management, but that was 11
days ago, and he hasn’t heard back from anyone.

Batista — who suffers from high blood pressure, is diabetic,
and just finished radiation treatment for prostate cancer — lives
in a studio apartment in the Lincoln Avenue development, located in
the Bronx’s Mott Haven section. The apartment, which faces the
street, bakes in the heat. “I’ve had to use a fan, but it’s
not working well because the heat has increased a lot over the past
three days … and the fan is not helping a lot,” Batista
says.

Extreme heat is an increasingly dangerous facet of summers in
New York City, and is especially so this year for populations that
are at higher risk of COVID-19 and would be safer cooling down
indoors rather than at a cooling center, pool, or beach. The
communities that are mostly affected by extreme heat during the
summer are now the same ones that have been disproportionately
affected by the coronavirus pandemic: lower-income communities of
color and the elderly.

One of the programs the mayor’s office has begun to implement
this year to combat extreme heat this summer is providing free air
conditioners to low-income New Yorkers so they can stay cool while
remaining inside.

“Essentially, COVID-19 and climate change — in particular,
extreme heat … are on a collision course, and it’s going to be
low-income families, older adults, our communities of color that
are most impacted,” says Jainey Bavishi, director of the
Mayor’s Office of Resiliency. “And extreme heat is the
deadliest weather event that we face, and so this is really a
matter of life and death, so it’s extremely critical that we are
taking steps to prepare for this very unique heat season that we
are about to enter.”

The program is among several initiatives the city carries out
every year to help cool down New Yorkers. This year, there will
also be “misting
oases
” and spray showers in NYC parks, and the Fire
Department will install spray caps on hydrants in neighborhoods
that are most at risk of heat waves.

Cities around the world experience extreme heat as an effect of
climate change, and New York City is not an exception. Like many
other places, NYC faces the urban-heat-island
effect
. This is caused when infrastructure, buildings, and
roads replace moist green areas, creating impermeable, dry surfaces
that prevent heat from being absorbed properly. Despite efforts to
mitigate heat waves, summer weather results in an average of 115
excess deaths from natural causes “exacerbated by extreme heat”
and 13 heatstroke deaths every year in NYC,
according to a 2017 report
from the de Blasio
administration.

In an interview with Curbed back in December — in pre-pandemic
times — about what the next decade would look like for New York
City in terms of climate-change mitigation, Dr. Timon McPhearson,
professor of urban ecology and director of the Urban Systems Lab at
the New School, emphasized the importance of addressing extreme
heat, especially because it disproportionately affects already
vulnerable populations.

“Low-income minority neighborhoods that have low amounts of
green space, they don’t have as many trees, they don’t have
many parks, and so they’re hotter — but they’re not just
hotter, they’re hotter in areas where people have less income,
less ability to afford air-conditioning, less resources to deal
with heat, and therefore are more at risk,” McPhearson said.

There is an evident overlap when it comes to the neighborhoods
affected by COVID-19 and those hit hardest by heat waves. According
to the
Heat Vulnerability Index
, which measures heat-related illness
or death in different neighborhoods, found that several areas in
the Bronx, including Mott Haven, Melrose, and University Heights,
are at highest risk, along with Bed-Stuy and East New York in
Brooklyn, plus Jamaica in Queens. Risk factors for an area,
according to
the index
, include hotter surface temperatures, less green
space, and more low-income residents. And some of those same
neighborhoods have been largely
affected by the coronavirus pandemic
as well.

Research has also
shown
that
African-American New Yorkers are at a higher risk
of mortality
as a result of heat, and they have experienced a high
mortality rate because of COVID-19, too.

The $65 million free-air-conditioners program aims to provide
over 74,000 ACs to New Yorkers who are 60 or older, who don’t
already have an AC at home, and who have an income below 60 percent
of the state’s median income. As of June 24, 18,000 ACs have been
installed, and 37,000 senior households, many of them located
within NYCHA developments, have registered to get them.

Meanwhile, in order to help the New Yorkers receiving ACs pay
for their higher utility bills, the state’s Public Service
Commission also agreed to double the amount of its
Con Edison utility-bill discount
. Through that low-income
program, Con Edison customers receive a discount of $13 a month,
and now, the “emergency
summer cooling credit
” will add up to $40 a month between
June and September.

And though it is an innovative program, it is definitely not the
best long-term solution to extreme heat, McPhearson says in a
recent interview: “Long-term, we have to decrease the
urban-heat-island [effect], and that’s going to mean increasing
in blue and green infrastructure at a much larger scale to provide
evaporative and shade-based cooling in the city.” McPhearson adds
that running ACs will require more energy and may become a source
of CO2 emissions.

The city is also working to prevent power outages — like the
one from last year that left more than
50,000 New Yorkers without power during a heat wave
— from
increased use of air-conditioning during the summer.

Extreme heat is only expected to get worse in the years to come.
The New York City Panel on Climate Change, a group of climate and
social scientists that aims to develop climate-change projections,
first assembled by former mayor Michael Bloomberg in 2008, predicts
that the number of days above 90 degrees annually in NYC could be
doubled by the 2050s.

For now, Batista, the elderly resident of Mitchel Houses in the
Bronx, is hoping to get his AC installed soon. “I went to the
NYCHA office with my nephew who speaks English well, and they took
my information and they said they would call me, but they
haven’t. I haven’t received any answer,” he says. “It’s
very tough because the AC could help with the pollen [entering my
apartment] a little bit, but [right now] I have to keep the window
open, you see?”

Source: FS – NYC Real Estate
Coronavirus and Extreme Heat Are ‘on a Collision Course’ as
NYC Summer Begins