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Climate events, especially hurricanes and heat waves, present major risks to communities every year. But in the coming months, communities—already reeling from the consequences of the pandemic—will have to respond to natural disasters with depleted municipal budgets and other complicating factors.

“Across the U.S., climate change and COVID-19 are playing out in tandem,” says Jalonne White-Newsome, senior program officer at the Kresge Foundation, which supports the Institute’s Urban Resilience program. “The warming planet drives increasingly extreme weather, compounding the pandemic’s impacts and complicating disaster response. At the same time, these dual threats have exposed the profound inequities that divide and weaken us.”

ULI’s Urban Resilience team interviewed several public leaders in June to identify how U.S. cities are preparing for natural disasters during the COVID-19 pandemic. A key focus was how cities are providing resources to their most vulnerable residents, including low-income communities and communities of color, who are most at risk for both COVID-19 and climate emergencies.

Outlook for Summer 2020

In May, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Climate Prediction Center predicted that 2020 will be an active hurricane season, with as many as 13 to 19 named storms. The outlook anticipated a 60 percent chance of an above-normal season, a 30 percent chance of a typical season, and a 10 percent chance of a below-normal season.

Already, the United States experienced two named tropical storms before the official start of the season on June 1; such an early start to the hurricane season has occurred only four times since 1851. With this potentially destructive season looming, city governments are concerned about how to keep residents safe and manage evacuations and evacuation centers given social-distancing needs, among many other issues.

Summer 2020 is also expected to be hotter than average, and that is risky for municipalities and residents during the coronavirus pandemic because most heat-related fatalities occur indoors in homes, and emergency response plans rely on mass cooling centers.

May 2020 was the hottest on record; almost the entire southern half of the United States experienced an unseasonable heatwave in April. “We had first our 90-degree day on Thursday and our first 100-degree day on Saturday, and by later that week it was 107,” says Braden Kay, sustainability director for Tempe, Arizona. “It was the second-fastest heat-up between our first 90-degree day and first 100-degree day in history.” Just a few weeks later, a heat wave scorched the U.S. West, placing almost 20 million people under some heat warnings as daily temperatures surpassed records that had stood for over 100 years.

Vulnerability to COVID-19 and Natural Disasters

Households with the most baseline vulnerabilities, including low-income families and communities of color, are most vulnerable to both climate events and COVID-19. “Understanding systemic inequalities highlights the links among high-baseline social vulnerability, high risk for contracting COVID-19, and high risk of an incomplete flood recovery,” notes a new handbook from the American Flood Coalition on how city governments can prepare for hurricanes and floods during the COVID pandemic. “These inequalities also highlight how disenfranchised communities may have reduced capacity to recover from a dual disaster.” For example, low-income families are more likely to live in floodplains and lack sufficient flood insurance; COVID-era job losses, and preexisting health conditions making evacuation riskier during the pandemic compound these risks and make planning for climate events even more challenging.

Courtesy of the American Flood Coalition

The extreme temperatures we experience during heat waves are exacerbated by climate change, and in cities, extreme heat is often directly correlated with land use and real estate patterns, as outlined in ULI’s 2019 report Scorched: Extreme Heat and Real Estate. Cities can be up to 22°F warmer than surrounding areas (a phenomenon known as the urban heat island effect), with significant temperature differences between the coolest and the hottest neighborhoods. “When we unpack the reasons for such a difference, they almost all have to do with land use decision-making,” says Christine Knapp, director of Philadelphia’s Sustainability Office.

While they are not the only risk factors, race, income, land use, and surface temperatures are highly correlated in most U.S. cities. “All of the neighborhoods that are hotter than average are communities of color and low-income communities because of the history of redlining and other racist policies that either kept people of color from living in places or forcing them to live in others,” explains Knapp.

Incarceration is also another potential risk factor for extreme heat related to race. Prisons often lack air conditioning and other cooling amenities, and according to the NAACP, “African Americans are incarcerated at more than fives times the rate of whites.”

COVID-19 is another risk on top of that heat inequality. “We realized early on that we were facing a compound crisis this summer,” announced Jainey Bavishi, director of the New York City Mayor’s Office of Resiliency during a public webinar in early June. “The same people who are vulnerable to COVID-19 are the same people who are vulnerable to extreme heat.” 

Hurricane Preparedness and COVID-19

The American Flood Coalition released a local government handbook this past May advising cities about how to address the compounded challenges of flooding and the pandemic. The handbook addresses legal authorities, communications strategies, and tactics for creating safe shelters and transportation. Other key issues of concern include the already stretched state of emergency personnel and the closure of public facilities, which typically serve as evacuation centers.

City governments preparing for hurricane season in 2020 have focused on how to keep residents safe and apart in shelters and en route to shelters. In Miami–Dade County, for example, officials have planned for evacuation centers to include health screenings and assigned spaces six feet (1.8 m) apart. In New Orleans, officials released modified plans for reduced-density public transportation to shelters in advance of the landfall of Tropical Storm Cristobal in early June.

Some leaders are emphasizing to residents that this season may require more advance preparations at the household level. Tracy Jackson, director, Regional Emergency Services and Communications for Broward County in southern Florida, said: “The overarching message is that residents should plan for the 2020 Hurricane Season as for previous seasons. However, due to the COVID-19 outbreak, we recognize that many typical items may be in limited supply due to shortages, limited retail hours, and limits on items per person. Because of this, we are encouraging everyone to begin early, because things will take longer. If activated, evacuation shelter capacity will likely be severely limited due to the need to institute social distancing as well as other CDC recommendations within. We therefore recommend that residents who are in a known flood zone identify alternate locations now, this might include residences of friends, family, hotels and motels. Public shelters should be considered a last resort.”

Safe Cooling Centers

Coronavirus complicates the main heat emergency coping options—keep cool at home or go to a cooling center. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released guidance for cooling centers in April, but managing a cooling center during a pandemic takes extra coordination. “You have to make lots of decisions,” explains Braden Kay in Tempe. “Are you going to do health screenings? What data are you going to take in? Where is that data going?”

Ahead of Tempe’s first heat health emergency early this year, the city joined a statewide call with public health, sustainability, and resilience officials from multiple cities and counties to coordinate. “To the degree that you can have regional coordination on COVID-19 and extreme heat, it’s really important. And if it hasn’t gotten hot yet and you haven’t brought up extreme heat to your emergency operations center and to public health folks, now is definitely the time,” advises Kay.

Following CDC protocols and in some cases adding additional safeguards, cities such as Los Angeles, Las Vegas, and Tempe that have already experienced heat emergencies have opened cooling centers, requiring health pre-screens to enter, hand sanitizer use upon entry, masks at all times, six feet (1.8 m) of separation between nonfamily members, and frequent disinfecting of high-touch surfaces. Centers are also limiting the total number of people in the shelter at any given time.

Emergency management and public health department capacity remains a challenge, however, and many municipalities are so far operating significantly fewer cooling centers than usual.

Home Cooling and Energy Assistance

Cities are also purchasing and distributing cooling equipment, especially in historically temperature or cool regions where home air conditioning is less common. A significant number of U.S. homes do not have air conditioning, and the current unprecedented unemployment rate means it is now more difficult for many to afford increased cooling costs. New York City, for example, has allocated $55 million to purchasing 74,000 air-conditioning units, with at least 22,000 dedicated for residents with low incomes in New York City Housing Authority housing. “It’s out of a recognition that we need to keep people cool at home this summer so they can stay safe this summer from the virus,” says Bavishi.

Repurposing low-income home energy assistance programs (LIHEAPs) to help residents afford cooling costs is another way that cities and states are responding. “It’s a success story,” says Knapp. “The state is allowing LIHEAP dollars to be used for cooling support for the summer, which is the first time ever that’s happened in Pennsylvania. If winters are getting milder and summers are getting hotter, we need to shift support structures in that direction as well. Right now, this cooling program is only for one summer, but we’re hoping we can convince the state to do that for the longer term.”

Long-Term Focus

Sustainability and resilience offices are adding capacity and creativity to COVID-19 response operations, but they are also staying focused on preparing for long-term climate changes. Philadelphia is evaluating whether a community heat relief network envisioned by a new neighborhood heat relief plan could be quickly scaled up in other parts of the city this summer given that traditional cooling centers (such as libraries) remain closed.

“We’re pivoting our city operations,” agrees Robyn Eason, senior sustainability manager for West Hollywood in Southern California. The city repurposed its city circulator bus to drop off food supplies to residents, helping some avoid going out in extreme temperatures as well as those unable to venture out for other reasons.

To learn more about the connections between extreme heat and COVID-19, check out these resources (developed in part by a ULI Arizona member) from the Global Heat Health Information Network.

To otherwise connect or get involved with the ULI Urban Resilience program, please email resilience@uil.org.