Summer heat is here. Is Lafayette prepared?

An old thermometer reading just under 100 degrees hangs on a wood paneled wall.
An old wall thermometer. Photo by John Ballance/The Advocate

After recording breaking heat last summer, Louisiana residents are buckling up for another hot few months. Earlier this month, temperatures cracked the 90 degree mark for the first time this year and according to the Climate Prediction Center the region is in for another unusually hot summer.

Last year, local governments were slow to respond to the excessive heat. Despite a heat advisory and heat indices considered excessive by the National Weather Service, it wasn’t until the end of August — usually the hottest and most deadly month when it comes to heat — that the first cooling center was set up in Lafayette Parish, for example. This year, officials say, things will be different.

Lafayette’s director of homeland security and emergency preparedness, Craig Stansbury, said a heat index of 100 will be considered the benchmark this year.

“Whenever that heat index gets to that, then we look at the resources that are available to be able to open those cooling stations,” Stansbury explained.

Heat indices are also known as the apparent or felt temperature, taking into account not just the air temperature but also humidity, which can make the heat feel more intense and exacerbate its impacts on people’s wellbeing. Last year, Lafayette experienced several days with heat indices over 100 degrees before cooling centers were opened.

Short of official cooling centers, city officials encouraged residents to use open areas in any public facility to access water fountains and cool down.

“It doesn’t have to be a 100 degree day. If it’s an 85 degree day and they just feel like ‘the sun’s beaming down on me’ — they can go in there and take advantage of those resources,” said Timothy Sensley, LCG’s director of parks, arts, recreation and culture.

While parts of the parish’s recreational centers are booked for summer camps and other programming, Sensley pointed out that parts of the building will still be accessible to the general public.

“They’re welcome to come and take full advantage of our rec centers that are open during normal operating hours, and go in and get out of elements,” Sensley said. Other public buildings, such as libraries, can also serve as a space to hydrate and cool down, LCG staff say.

Meanwhile, Catholic Charities of Acadiana operated a cooling station for people without shelters at St. Joseph Diner in Lafayette over Memorial Day weekend in response to a heat advisory issued by the National Weather Service.

After years of record-breaking temperatures, heat has become an increasingly prominent public health issue. Last year, the Louisiana Department of Health launched a dashboard to keep track of heat-related deaths in an effort to create more awareness around the dangers of extreme heat.

In 2023, 69 people in Louisiana died as a result of heat, according to LDH data. Hundreds more reported to emergency rooms with heat-related symptoms. Those figures mark upward trends, state officials say.

“In recent years, we have experienced increased heat and more emergencies,” said Dr. Sundée Winder, executive director of the department’s bureau of community preparedness.

With the dashboard and through other campaigns, such as guidance to schools on how to plan activities around the temperature, the department hopes to drive home the health risks of exposure to extreme heat, in a state where many might be indifferent to them.

“We want individuals to know he is getting hotter, for longer periods of time, and heat is dangerous,” Winder said. “We’re hopeful that we’ll have fewer heat-related deaths, fewer heat-related illnesses based on the information we’re providing.”

The department now treats heat similarly to another seasonal threat in Louisiana: hurricanes. “We do a heavy education on hurricanes. We are now doing the same level for hurricanes and heat,” Winder said.

Often, the two go hand in hand. Most deaths in the wake of a hurricane are due to heat-related illness, as survivors of the storm face periods without electricity to cool their homes or other infrastructure to escape the heat, Winder pointed out. In the 2020-21 hurricane season, 22 people died due to heat-related illness following a storm, according to LDH.

In light of rising temperatures across the globe, a movement has taken shape to create government positions to deal specifically with extreme heat as a public health issue. Driven by the Arsht-Rockefeller Foundation Resilience Center, “chief heat officers” have gained traction, especially in places that already experience high baseline temperatures, like the Global and American South.

“It has become incredibly apparent that we can’t go about business as usual, that this is something that is already having devastating impacts on people’s health,” said Catherine Wallace, the center’s associate director of strategic partnerships and advocacy. “We need people to be solving this problem now, both to keep people safe in the present, but also to be thinking, really innovatively, about how we are going to make our cities more livable in the future.”

Chief heat officer responsibilities break down into three major areas, Wallace explained: awareness, preparedness and redesign.

While awareness and preparedness mainly include educational campaigns, like those run by LDH, and resources, such as cooling centers stood up by local government, redesign aims to create a built environment that is more adaptive to extreme heat.

“Cities are not built for the heat that we are in and headed towards,” Wallace said. But public works projects like shade structures and “urban greening” — increasing cities’ tree canopy to absorb heat — can change that.

LCG staff said there were no plans to hire someone specifically to address heat in the future, a concept that has so far been implemented in larger cities or on a state level, but there are projects underway that address heat through public works, according to LCG’s community development and planning department.

At the Martin Luther King Recreation Center, a shading structure will be installed above the pool. And on 12th, Vermilion and Congress streets, trees will be planted to provide shade for cyclists and pedestrians.

“Whether or not someone holds the title chief heat officer, I think it’s possible for governments to start thinking more proactively about how do we respond to this problem,” Wallace said.

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