A Century Later, City's Heat Strategies Still Come Up Short

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Children lick a block of ice on a hot summer day.

In 1896, when a massive heat wave hit New York, it was not city government’s problem.

For 10 days that summer, outdoor temperatures rocketed above 90 degrees Fahrenheit, reaching up to 120 degrees inside old brick tenement buildings. Ice companies jacked up the price of ice, horses fainted by the hundreds, and by the end of the heat wave, nearly 1,500 New Yorkers had died. 

The mayor didn’t call an emergency meeting with his department heads until the emergency was almost over. But it was that summer, according to historian Edward Kohn, that a giant shift in government's role took place.

A young Theodore Roosevelt was the city’s police commissioner at the time, and seeing that the mayor wasn’t acting, he took matters into his own hands. He opened up the police precinct on the Lower East Side and handed out ice to the poor immigrants living in tenements there.

“For Theodore Roosevelt to say, 'Well, no, the government should be responsible — should purchase this ice and hand it out for free' — that was a pretty radical notion,” said Kohn, the author of Hot Time in the Old Town: The Great Heat Wave of 1896 and the Making of Theodore Roosevelt.

The notion is no longer radical. The city tackles extreme heat today through long- and short-term strategies. But some of its initiatives are poorly executed or stuck in the planning stages. An estimated 140 people still die every year due to heat.

One of the city’s emergency lines of defense is “cooling centers.” They’re air-conditioned rooms around the city that open up during heat waves to the public.

One 84-year-old in Harlem — let's call her "Philly," since she doesn't want her real name used because of a dispute with her landlord — said she has visited one before, but they are hard to find. Philly’s part of the Harlem Heat Project and has a heat-and-humidity sensor in her home. It shows that even though she has one small air conditioner in the living room, the heat index in other rooms stayed above 85 degrees for a full week in August, peaking at more than 100 degrees that month. She says cooling centers are a good idea, but they’re too far away and too hard to get to  — the closest one is about 10 blocks away. When WNYC tried to visited three cooling centers near her house on Aug. 13 (the warmest day of the year so far), it discovered wrong addresses, misleading directions, and very few people taking advantage of the centers.

At one cooling center at the Polo Grounds public housing complex, for example, Laura McBean, 60, was the sole attendee when WNYC stopped by. She said she visits the cooling center because she gets heat headaches. But her elderly friend with asthma and her young kids never come. The trip downstairs alone is too much for her friend, she said, and her kids equate it with being old.

"They refuse to think of me as old,” McBean said.

She continued, “In a perfect world, which we’re not in a perfect world, we can get an air conditioner for maybe half the cost."

While we aren't in a perfect world, New York state does offer free air conditioners and help in paying electric bills to cool qualified New Yorkers' homes. But there’s great demand and limited supply. This year, the program has approved 719 applications so far. But more than 100,000 seniors don’t have any AC in their apartments, according to the latest figures.

Under Mayor Mike Bloomberg, the city came up with another idea. It was going to choose two vulnerable communities and work with them to devise a plan to combat extreme heat. The whole project was supposed to be finished last year and ready to roll out citywide. Eddie Bautista of the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance said he found out earlier this year very little had been done.

“We were so frankly alarmed that there had yet to be a real concerted heat planning effort put forward by the city,” he said. “We look forward to the city actually executing this and not just planning to plan for it, you know?”

Daniel Zarrilli, senior director for climate policy and programs in the mayor’s office, says the city has made progress: it has planted a million trees and painted roofs white to cool down the city. While it's not clear yet how effective these steps are, Zarrilli has gathered a group of experts to help figure it out.

“There’s a clear data gap on what we know around neighborhood ambient level temperatures,” he said. He says sensors are being installed in neighborhoods, and he’s just funded a LIDAR initiative to better understand the effect of the city’s tree coverage.

As for cooling centers, Zarrilli said the sparse attendance WNYC observed is something the city needs to work on.

“It’s incumbent on us to make sure that those folks who need cooling are able to access the networks we’ve set up," he said