Why Cooling Centers Go Empty

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

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.


Gisele Regatao


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Comments [10]

Miranda from BKLYN

That's so sad. "Sociable, involved, connected people" are doing fine in cooling centers. People who are not sociable, involved, or connected; that isn't noticed as being any problem until they're about to die of heatstroke.

Let's parse-out the "physically isolated" cases from the "socially isolated." Physical isolation is created by a physical condition, and as ImGillian and Granpa stated, cabs and walking-buddies would remedy the situation. But social isolation, a sense of separateness from others, is created in the mind.
Listen at 3:22, "The real challenge for public health officials are connecting to people who are not inclined to being connected." This sounds like the profile of mental illness. Now of course, being a loner isn't in the DSM-V, but human beings are social creatures, so for a person to be lacking in connection is a sign something's not right.
It sounds less that heat waves cause deaths, it's the inability to save one's self, to break from one's self-imposed isolation for the relief to be found in a public space. (For agoraphobics and people with anxiety, public spaces are the farthest thing from feeling safe.) For someone to be "not inclined to be connected," that's maybe nothing more than a mild depression 360 days of the year, but during a 5-day heat wave it can be fatal.
What is really the cause of death, is it "heat-related illness"? Or is it from mental health complications during heat waves?

Jul. 17 2013 11:19 PM
Diane from New York City

I don't go to these centers because I can't stand walking outside in the heat. Then when you get there, what is there to do? At least at home, I can be on the internet and have the TV on.

Jul. 17 2013 10:22 PM

Someone who is frail/elderly sometimes cannot get themselves to a cooling center because of the physical strain. They need at least a "walking buddy" to go with them ... at best wheeled transportation -- from a chair to a taxi, depending on the distance involved.

Just opening a center and saying "y'all come" is not enough. Just ask the Meals on Wheels people.

If you have an elderly neighbor, and a/c at your place, why not invite him/her in for the hottest part of the day, to enjoy a cold drink with you. You know they won't come a knockin' at your door and ask to be taken in. We all have our pride.

Jul. 17 2013 03:04 PM
TOM MURPHY from Brooklyn

You are avoiding the obvious. When in need people first turn to family, friends and neighbors. This was generally true during Sandy. Public resources while welcome are almost always at a distance, not convenient and less user-friendly.
Your public messaging should remind all of this most simple remedy and continually encourage it.

Jul. 17 2013 11:19 AM
Granpa Danl from Manhattan

Yes, there are individuals unable to walk to a cooling center, and then return home. Cab service for those? Or install an a/c? How to identify? Word of mouth, or registration for senior center meals/activities, or meals on wheels? Message must get out to us -- you can die if you don't get cool!

Jul. 17 2013 12:45 AM
J. Demers from NYC

I think getting to the cooling centers is more of an obstacle than most people appreciate. By the time the heat is so bad that you feel your health is at risk, going out onto the city sidewalks is not an attractive option -- especially if you're old and frail. Cooling centers are nice, for those that can get to them easily, but the city might need to add transportation to the mix if they want to help the most vulnerable.

Jul. 17 2013 12:08 AM

The article stated some facts but did not answer the question.

Jul. 16 2013 10:32 PM

OK, so why do people visiting a cooling center go outside and sit under a tree again? Why do they leave after lunch? This article did not really address the issue.

Jul. 16 2013 10:01 PM

The website works fine.

Jul. 16 2013 06:58 PM
Sam Abrams


Jul. 16 2013 06:23 PM

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