On school mornings, Sheena Green walks her son to the bus stop in the Desire neighborhood, where they wait up to 10 minutes on the curb. Green lives on Oliver White Avenue, a street with no tree cover.
According to a recently released study by Climate Central, a climate-change research group, Desire is one of the city’s hottest neighborhoods, a “heat island,” often due to a relative lack of tree cover. The group found that the neighborhood feels up to nine degrees hotter than the rest of the city.
The heat has been especially noticeable during the brutal summer of 2023. Green said even the short trip to the bus stop makes her feel light-headed, as if she might pass out.
“If you sit outside you’re going to get heatstroke,” said Green. “If you walk to the corner there, nine out of 10 you might get a heatstroke cause you gotta walk the kids to the bus stop.”
This year has seen unprecedented heat waves across three continents. July 4th celebrations were marred by news of the hottest day recorded on earth. Heat stroke, pavement burns and deaths were seen across the South and the West. In perhaps its most devastating outcome, heat has escalated class disparities—where access to air conditioning can be the difference between health and heat death.
Though this crisis is not particular to Louisiana, we are one of two states to declare an emergency earlier this month. New Orleans EMS has been inundated with approximately four times the amount of heat emergency calls than in previous years. Not even the end of the day is providing relief from heat that persists through the night, preventing our bodies from cooling to a safe temperature. Louisiana’s emergency declaration echoed Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s urgency when she issued an emergency declaration for the city on Aug. 8. “This order is necessary in order to protect the life, safety, and welfare of the citizens of Louisiana,” the state order read.
But the heat is not striking every neighborhood the same. According to Climate Central’s 2023 report, pockets of escalated heat exist across the city, and areas like Mid-City and the Desire neighborhood can feel significantly hotter than other areas in New Orleans. As the city continues to experience record heat, with daily heat indexes as high as 120 degrees, families in heat islands may have to cope with a heat index of nearly 130 degrees.
‘Certain neighborhoods are really getting whacked’
Climate Central, an independent group of scientists researching the effects of climate change, recently published data on heat islands in major cities. The group’s report revealed that approximately 44,000 people in New Orleans are living in areas as much as nine degrees hotter than other areas of the city. A previous study, from 2021, identified New Orleans as the city with the worst heat island effect in the country.
“What we’re seeing … is that kind of increasing baseline temperature from climate change, and then certain neighborhoods are really getting whacked, because they have this additional heat,” said Jennifer Brady, data analyst for Climate Central.
Contributing to this heat effect is the fact that New Orleans is a city with some of the lowest tree coverage in the United States, said Christopher Potter, a research scientist specializing in satellite imagery and ecology. Potter worked with the City of New Orleans on its Reforestation Plan which was announced earlier this year.
Cities like Baltimore and Sacramento have approximately 30% tree cover, Potter said, whereas the tree coverage in New Orleans is only 18.5%. Even in shadier neighborhoods like Uptown, the tree coverage is only 11.1%. It is significantly lower in areas like Desire.
Part of the reason for the lack of tree coverage in New Orleans is the loss of trees during Hurricane Katrina (the Restoration Plan noted that 200,000 trees were lost during Katrina) and following hurricanes that gutted tree cover in neighborhoods like the Lower 9th Ward. The storms made it difficult to plant saplings, Potter said. Some areas looked green due to overgrown abandoned lots, but the bushes and shrubbery do not alleviate the pressing heat.
Along with Mid-City and Desire, Climate Central identified the French Quarter, Little Woods and Seabrook neighborhoods. These areas lack significant tree coverage compared to the areas near City Park, where a large cool enclave of trees and green space protect surrounding residents from the heat. For lower-income areas like the Desire neighborhood, where soaring electric bills can mean the hard choice between air conditioning and basic necessities, families are in a double bind.
Physical and financial stress
In Desire, abandoned lots sprout weeds that have overtaken the sidewalks. High school students and children walk home in the scorching heat, past the Baptist churches and houses on streets named Treasure, Humanity and Abundance. Apartments in The Estates, the development that replaced the Desire public housing complex, are brightly colored, and the neighborhood is quiet at the end of the day. Residents avoid going outside, instead choosing to stay inside their air-conditioned homes.
Green is a hair stylist who has one son in middle school and another who walks almost 15 minutes to his high school.
“He be soaking wet by the time he comes back in,” Green said. “That’s why I always keep the air conditioning on, in case they come and they feel like they’re about to faint … I just have waters ready.” Green said this is a daily experience for her sons.
Her children have also been impacted by the heat during the school day. In their first three days back, Green said, the students were kept inside two days in a row because of the heat advisory.
“The little kids, they don’t let them outside at recess because they don’t want them to pass out,” Green said.
The stress of heat exposure on the body cannot be understated, said Orlando Laitano, professor of applied physiology at University of Florida whose research focuses on exertional heat stress.
“The cells that make the human body are very temperature sensitive,” Laitano said. Our bodies have a regulatory system: sweat. When our sweat evaporates, it cools us and helps to prevent heat stress. But the system can break down when high heat is accompanied by high humidity.
“The problem is that if the humidity is high … sweat will not evaporate, and we will not cool down,” Laitano said.
The Louisiana Department of Health released a study in June on heat-related illness in Orleans Parish between 2010 – 2020 noting that Black people—like Green’s family and most of the residents in Desire—are more likely to be impacted by heat illness.
“AC, even just a few hours a day can do a lot to reduce your risk of developing heat illness,” said Dr. Alicia Van Doren, a preventive medicine physician specializing in climate change who advises the LDH’s heat illness prevention program. “And that’s because it really gives your body some time to recover from heat. But not everybody has air conditioning. Not everybody can pay a high electric bill for air conditioning.”
Desire residents who spoke to Verite quoted increases in their monthly energy bills. Green said her bill has gone up around $150 since May. The extra expense, she said, has impacted their budget. They have had a harder time affording items like toilet paper, and have considered going without internet at home in order to afford air conditioning.
However, residents have few options but to stay indoors to protect themselves. Green believes the city should do more to help low-income families located in heat islands.
“I feel like they need to put up more trees … to get more shade,” Green said. “They could at least help us with lowering some bills because of the heat.”
Entergy New Orleans announced August 21 that it will not shut off anyone’s service due to nonpayment. The energy company said it will be suspending service shut-offs until September 9.
The City of New Orleans is also currently operating cooling centers across the city, with Desire Florida Multipurpose Center as the closest to Green’s home. The city also has contracts with two groups to plant trees on public rights of way around the city.
The danger of heat exertion is particularly felt by people who work outdoors, and when they return to neighborhoods with excessive heat the pressure is two-fold. Rusbil Bautista lives in Mid-City, another heat island, with his partner Gabriela Gomez and their children. The streets surrounding their house are dusty, with discarded construction equipment and torn roads.
Bautista is a construction worker himself. He said he was at work in mid-July when the heat index reached 125 degrees. Bautista started to feel cramps in his legs. The sensation progressed up to his abdomen until he lost feeling.
“I collapsed. Well, I felt like it was already a heart attack. … I blacked out for about 20 seconds,” Bautista said, speaking in Spanish.
Bautista had to take several days off work to recover from the incident, which added an additional financial burden to the family.
“You have to put up with it and if you don’t, there is no money,” Bautista told Verite.
It’s not clear if the heat was the direct cause of Bautista’s blackout, but he said that at times, the heat is unbearable. According to Laitano, even one instance of heat stroke can cause lasting damage.
“We do know that exposure to extreme heat is very concerning because it leads to some long term effects,” Laitano said. “If you collapse you may recover immediately if you are cooled down, but you may have long-term health consequences because of that episode … if you have a heatstroke episode, you are about seven times more likely to have cardiovascular disease in the future.”
For families like Bautista’s, the question of heat is one of immediate urgency, with long-term consequences.
However, Brady of Climate Central is optimistic, noting that unlike runaway climate change, the problem of heat islands is one that can be improved. “You really need to start connecting the dots and thinking, ‘Okay, we need a solution right here,’” she said. “That’s what this kind of data helps people to start to think about.”
Verite News Fellow Nigell Moses contributed to this report.
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