Heat Islands Hitting Lower Income, Minority Neighborhoods

Gulf Shores, Alabama   It’s rained part of every day for two weeks.  There is supposed to be a one-day break in New Orleans without any rain.  Living in the semi-tropics that passes for normal.  I used to say summer in the city was 85 percent humidity and 85 degrees Fahrenheit.  Now, looking at the weather every day, it’s 90s all the way down.  This week is supposed to feature not only rain but 94- and 95-degree temperatures as well.  This climate thing is real – and dangerous.

A report in the Washington Post was clear.  Research led by Vivek Shandas, a professor of urban studies and planning at Portland State University with volunteers, found “heat islands” in both Baltimore and Washington, DC.  Not surprisingly the temperature variance was significantly higher in lower income and minority areas with spread sometimes reaching twenty degrees.  The reason was simple to find:  fewer trees and more pavement.

A colleague of Dr. Shandas, Jeffrey Hoffman of the Science Museum of Virginia, made the case that the impact of heat islands on health impacts is devastating.  As the New York Times reported:

He found that the four warmest ZIP codes also saw the highest rates of heat-related ambulance calls and emergency room visits. Richmond’s heat islands also overlap with its communities of color and low income, according to Brianne Mullen, the city’s sustainability coordinator. The city has just two cooling centers, and, because of budget cuts, the number of trees planted fell drastically in 2016 and 2017 before rebounding last year.


Richmond is dragging wagon on this, but the Times reports progress in Baltimore:

Baltimore is trying to ease the heat burden by planting more trees. The city plans to increase its tree canopy to cover 40 percent of the city, up from 28 percent in 2015, according to Lisa McNeilly, director of the Baltimore Office of Sustainability.

Heat islands don’t pick favorites.

Other reports have noted that Houston recently planted 175 trees along a city thoroughfare in order to grow the shade that would significantly reduce temperatures there.

Getting back to New Orleans, older working-class and minority neighborhoods in areas where land is a delimiting factor have no front yards with front doors, like Philadelphia, Baltimore and other row house cities, within only a sidewalk’s length of the street, offering no shade, and guaranteeing hot spots.  There are some homes along tree-lined neutral grounds, but these areas are more commonly uptown in richer, whiter areas or in suburbs along the lake where the levee board filled cypress swamp lands and planted oak trees in the easements.

The research on heat islands needs to be circulated widely.  Recent proposals on neutral ground in cities as different as New Orleans and San Francisco have proposed everything from housing construction in such medians to paving bicycle lanes.

We need to literally keep as much “green” as we can, and bring in as many shade trees as cities and neighbors can afford to build buffers in the inner cities against the heat waves that are here now and likely to create private and public hells in the future without aggressive action.


Please enjoy “Across the Pond” by DJ Trotsky.  Thanks to KABF.


Calm Before the Storm

empty streets

New Orleans    We checked the storm reports on Tropical Storm, wannabe hurricane, Barry, constantly as we prepared to leave Milwaukee.  We were confident that we could get to Houston, but the last leg into New Orleans, scheduled to land at 9PM, might be a different matter, if winds were rising before landfall.  Everything seemed to be “go” though.  The lines were forming by their numbers to board the flight.  The United agent took the mike, and announced there would be a delay.  Our hearts skipped, and then hopes rose again when he said it was expected to be brief.  Seems President Trump and Air Force One were on the runway with the same scheduled 4pm departure time from MKE as ours.  We have all read that he likes to go home, so we had hope, and, frankly, Milwaukee is not really his kind of town, so we crossed our fingers that he wouldn’t be lingering but instead would be ready for the bright lights.  Luckily, we were out by 430pm.

Landing in Houston, the flight board read “On Time,” so we hustled.  All standbys were cleared.  I could overhear the crew talking about whether they would be stuck in the city and whether this might be the last flight out.  We landed in some wind, but less than the 40 mph that shuts down runways.  An airport official was clearing the airport.  He asked me if I had a taxi, and I answered, no, my truck was in the lot.  When I inquired about the deal, he said they were closing the airport after the last flights landed and wanted to make sure no one was caught overnight.  We had the conversation near a young soldier spread out on the floor in camo with his gear everywhere and his orders lying near his leg.

The predawn found the city dry as I hustled to get gas, cash, and check on all the family properties since my son was still in route home and my daughter was temporarily exiled.  There was a car somehow parked in the Fair Grinds patio on St. Claude.  Both coffeehouses were closed.

It was eerie driving the streets.  They were almost totally empty.  Cars were parked in the neutral grounds everywhere.  Cars were parked on sidewalks.  Mostly cars were gone, as if there were an evacuation notice that we missed somehow.  City buses were lined up in a parking lot at the University of New Orleans near Elysian Fields as I left my parents’ house.  As I stopped to take a picture, the campus cops were blocking the street into the campus.  Some gas stations were open, but Loews looked closed, but it was still before 7AM, so who knows?  Our radio station was still broadcasting.

buses parked

This is a post-Katrina experience for so many, for too many.  People have lost trust.  In the city, this is a water-event with rain expected to get up to two feet in some areas.  Pumps can clear five or six inches in the beginning and then one inch and hour or so afterwards.  Landfall is expected to the southwest around Morgan City, a working-class oil town.  The Mississippi River is high, but in most areas should be no problem, and certainly is secure in New Orleans.

We may not be able to fly to France for our organizers meeting as scheduled, but we’ll be fine.  Will this new scare, change the government’s policies on climate?  We can wish, but trust is gone there as well.