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The City of Atlanta responds to heat wave — but is it enough?

A screenshot of recent Atlanta forecasts.

By Mark Lannaman

As temperatures rise to dangerous levels, the city of Atlanta has responded by opening a cooling center to protect vulnerable communities from the heat.

Residents of Atlanta without central air, homeless people and more were able to enjoy the cooling center “Wednesday, June 15, 2022, through Friday, June 17, 2022, 12 p.m. to 7 p.m. daily,” according to a press release from the mayor’s office.

Temperatures reached a high of 99, 95, and 93, respectively, in the three days the cooling center was open. The facility was situated in the Old MLK Natatorium in Downtown Atlanta. Water and light refreshments were offered to residents needing to get out of the heat, according to the press release.

The City of Atlanta isn’t alone

Dekalb County responded similarly to the heat advisory by naming most of its recreational centers and libraries as cooling centers. All but the Hamilton, Lucious Sanders and Midway recreation centers will be used as cooling centers during heat advisories, according to the statement by Dekalb County. Likewise, all libraries except Brookhaven Library and Covington Library are to be used during heat advisories. 

The county wrote that a room in each recreation center would be used as the designated cooling center, and that water fountains would be made available throughout the facility.

Environmental justice 

With city and county governments alike acknowledging the heat wave sweeping through, it prompts the question of if these responses are enough – especially for high-risk individuals like the elderly and homeless, or those without central air. 

Some organizations like Urban Heat ATL are leading the way in this research, with a goal of mapping heat islands around Atlanta through community science to better prepare for heat waves like recent ones.

Dr. Rebecca Watts Hull, a service-learning and partnership specialist for Serve-Learn-Sustain at Georgia Tech is partnered with groups like Urban Heat ATL and the West Atlanta Watershed Alliance, says responding to these issues will require environmental justice to be at the forefront. 

“We don’t all experience extreme heat in the same way. Obviously the kind of housing that we’re in, whether we have central air conditioning and whether we can afford to run central air conditioning 24/7 in extreme heat, differences in asthma rates, underlying health conditions… mean different vulnerabilities,” Watts Hull said. “So all of those justice and equity aspects of climate change I think are strengthened by partnering with environmental justice organizations,” 

A ‘band-aid’ approach

Watts Hull feels that the cooling centers are good temporary solutions, but more needs to be done long term.

“[They’re] really important, because people can die in extreme heat. So cooling centers make sense as a short-term solution,” Watts Hull said. “But long-term climate resilience means that we need to ensure that everyone is living in housing where they can weather extreme heat, and they have ways to respond… that don’t require them to leave their community and go to another place temporarily.”

Watts Hull also emphasized the importance of community expertise. 

“Expertise that resides within universities like Georgia Tech isn’t the only kind of expertise that’s relevant to these issues. The experience of people living in different parts of Atlanta and experiencing extreme heat is just as relevant as the measurements we’re taking with these sophisticated instruments,” Watts Hull said. “That’s a lot harder to address than setting up a cooling station. It means addressing systemic racism, systemic causes of poverty, the fact that so many people are living in housing that is substandard.” 

Temperatures have already scraped 100 this summer, and are expected to remain scorching throughout the summer months, allowing systemic inequities to come to greater light.

“These inequities in the consequences of extreme heat are, of course, just one example of climate injustice. Both locally and globally, communities that have contributed much less to the greenhouse gasses causing the problem are often the same communities suffering the most,” Watts Hull said. “In addition to addressing systemic causes of inequality, these inequities also underscore the urgency of significantly ramping up policies and practices to rapidly reverse the build-up of greenhouse gasses.”

SaportaReport reached out to the city about future plans for cooling centers. This article will be updated when a response is provided.



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