Why Cooling Centers Go Empty

New York City opens as many as 500 or so cooling centers each time a heat wave descends. Yet, experts who have studied them say these centers do not work—or at least they do not in the way one would expect them to.

"We were struck by how few people come and stay,” said Christina Zarcadoolas, a professor at the School of Public Health at the City University of New York who researched cooling centers last summer. “Lots of elderly folks will come at lunch time, a few will gather an hour before lunch, and go back either to their apartments—which are not cooled—or even go outside and sit under a tree.” 

Cooling centers are generally public or semi-public places like libraries or senior centers that are likely to be open anyway, but where anyone looking for a cool place can take refuge. (For the closest one near you, visit the city's web finder.)

About half a million New Yorkers are considered at risk for heat exposure, according to surveys from the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. That is roughly how many people do not have air conditioners, and are either elderly or have chronic health conditions.

The health department estimates about 250 to 300 New Yorkers die directly or indirectly from heat each year, a number that will likely climb as global warming makes summers more intolerable.

“People tend not to go to places that are really out of their ordinary circles during crises,” said Eric Klinenberg, a sociologist at New York University who wrote a book about the 1995 Chicago heat wave, Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago. “People who are socially isolated or physically isolated, older people and sick people who live alone are especially vulnerable during heat waves. They’re the ones who can get very sick without themselves recognizing it and without anyone else noticing.”

Health officials say cooling centers are one of several important strategies the city uses to try to combat heat-related illnesses and deaths, even if they do not attract many people who come just to keep cool.

“I think it’s helpful when we’re talking to the public, when there’s an announcement made that there is a heat advisory,” said Tom Matte, an assistant commissioner at the health department. “It’s helping to convey the idea that this is a serious matter. It’s not just uncomfortable.”

Since a pair of heat waves in the 2006, the city has made changes to how it responds to high heat. Heat advisories are now declared whenever the heat index is forecast to reach 95 degrees two days in a row. Previously, the threshold was 100 degrees. Also, nonprofit service providers call their high-risk clients each morning during heat waves, and follow-up with visits if necessary.