From hurricanes to tornadoes to the sinking ground below, the city of New Orleans is well acquainted with environmental challenges.

Every year around June 1 — the beginning of the hurricane season — local, state and federal officials gather before the press to assure the public that the city and the region have been here before and have a playbook to address whatever comes. 

This year, however, there was another almost unprecedented challenge: extreme heat. This summer saw extended periods of high temperatures and heat indexes above 120. The Louisiana Health Department has recorded 35 deaths caused by the extreme conditions, and the city’s coroner said he won’t know the true number of New Orleans heat deaths until later in the fall. 

“The future will require a new way of thinking about extreme heat and how to address it,” said Kurt Shickman, director of Extreme Heat Initiatives at the Adrienne Arsht-Rockefeller Foundation Resilience Center. “We’re only really waking up as people to how dangerous heat is for us.”

While federal agencies are playing catch-up in drafting new heat crisis guidelines and emergency protocols, New Orleans emergency services are assessing how they handled the local heat emergency and what dealing with similar disasters might look like in the years to come. 

“For this year, I mean, we’ve been … flying the plane while we’re building it,” Collin Arnold, director of New Orleans Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness, told Verite News.  “The reason why my team really advocated and I ultimately advocated to the mayor to do a [emergency] declaration was because we didn’t see an end in sight for this.” 

NOLA Ready on the ground 

When Mayor LaToya Cantrell officially declared a state of emergency for the heat in August, the NOLA Ready team opened nine NORD emergency cooling centers and several other partnered spaces across the city,  including churches, for the whole heat season.

One of the partnering locations, St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church on South Carrollton Avenue, has been a regular stop for an eclectic group of people — parishioners, the houseless and most recently film industry employees on strike. 

Freestanding Communities members Francesca and Bey perform a wellness check for an unhoused individual at the cooling tent on September 8. Credit: Photo courtesy of NOLA Ready

The houseless population has been the main clients at NOLA Ready’s overnight cooling space in the Rosenwald Recreation Center, which is equipped with cots and water bottles. It has been overseen all summer by the community center staff, who have been essential to keeping the cooling facilities open, Arnold said. 

“It’s so critical to us because they’re there at those rec centers every day,” Arnold said of the partnership with the recreation department. “It’s a matter of giving them the proper education and training on how to deal with sheltering and this kind of emergency resource center … giving them the playbook on how to do this, which has made this … heat response successful for us.” 

NOLA Ready contracted with a local film production team this month to provide a mobile cooling tent at the houseless encampment on Tchoupitoulas Street, complete with pet cages, tables to play cards and dominoes, and medical services provided by Free Standing Communities

A giant generator and tent are put up in the morning and taken down every day at the site. Staff at the cooling tent said they had as many as 50  visitors on the hottest days last week, with far more visitors than at their other sites.

Even in the most extreme temperatures, the other cooling centers have not been well attended, a problem that is not unique to New Orleans. Though cooling centers are most cities’ first defense against extreme heat, they largely sit empty

Transportation might be the problem, Arnold said. “You’ve got to meet people where they’re at.” 

New Orleans Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness is considering integrating the tent model they improvised this year, to put cool spaces closer to where people need them. 

After Hurricane Ida hit last August, the city partnered with the New Orleans Regional Transit Authority to provide mobile cooling buses. However, with regular transit operations continuing during this year’s heat emergency, this wasn’t an option for this year’s scorching summer temperatures. 

 In the days after Ida, the greatest threat to life was not the hurricane itself, but the heat that killed several seniors during an extended power outage. 

Challenges of addressing the heat 

Bringing solutions directly to people, rather than requiring people to make a trip out of their houses during the scorching heat, are solutions that the NOLA Ready team has discussed. 

“Another thing that’s challenging is when to use hub systems and when to directly deliver services,” said Peter Edmondson, the accessibility coordinator for NOLA Ready. “One option is to pick people up and bring them to cooling centers. Or are there individuals who it’s better to serve directly, like, right in their homes?

Bianchi Hughes, left, NOHSEP Community Engagement Manager, briefs a staff member from CORE New Orleans on cooling tent operations on September 8. Credit: Photo courtesy of NOLA Ready

Almost all of these solutions would require more staff, an issue that Arnold says is the greatest problem standing in the way of protecting New Orleanians from the heat. 

During hurricanes, when some city operations are shut down, NOHSEP has asked “non-essential” city employees to return and be paid to support the recovery effort. That option isn’t available during a heat emergency when regular city operations must continue, leaving a constant shortage of staff for new emergency measures. 

NOHSEP will be discussing this issue in a meeting in October. 

One of the greatest challenges facing NOLA Ready is helping the public to understand the extraordinary dangers of the heat and to take precautions. 

“A lot of people … they’re not understanding that this is a bigger thing,” said Ariana Newman, the team’s volunteer coordinator. People expect it to be hot in New Orleans during the summer, but not as hot as it got this year. People with pre-existing health conditions can be especially vulnerable to heat stroke, passing out and more. Staying hydrated and cool is essential. 

What other cities are doing

In Miami, Jane Gilbert, the world’s first “heat officer,” says she faces the same problem. 

“We’re trying to … help people understand … that this is not just hot Miami as usual. It’s extraordinary conditions,” Gilbert said. “If you’re an employer, your workers really shouldn’t be working during the hottest times of the day. And if they have to be out, they have to take these precautions.”

Gilbert also stressed the importance of pushing for policy changes such as adjustments to building codes. 

“We don’t have a minimum cooling standard in the building code,” she said. “We have minimum heating standards, but nothing requiring a certain capacity for cooling.”  

Explaining how far-reaching the effects of heat are is a challenge being undertaken in an unusual way in Seville, Spain, where the city has named its major heat waves as a way to gain the public’s attention. 

“We had one last year and three this year — named heat waves in Seville,” said Shickman, whose Resilience Center has been closely involved in establishing heat officers and extreme heat innovations in Europe, Africa and North America. 

“One of the things we’re looking at right now is the name is only important if it’s actually changing behavior,” said Shickman. “If it’s actually galvanizing people to make different decisions or pay more attention.” So far, Shickman said,  preliminary data shows that this method is working, and helping people to understand the severity and to take action to protect themselves. 

NOLA Ready intern Monica Schneider and community partner Aquil Bey staff a cooling tent on Tchoupitoulas Street, set up to serve the nearby encampment community on September 11th, 2023. Credit: Lue Palmer/Verite News

Though cities in the United States have not yet adopted the naming method, they are looking toward each other for innovations. By its nature, emergency preparedness is a collaborative field. It is not unusual for Arnold to speak with emergency preparedness staff in Denver or Los Angeles to seek or share advice. 

“The most important part of this job is the relationships you build and the network that you make,” Arnold said. “I don’t necessarily know how to deal with a wildfire. But I can call my counterparts in numerous states, California, any of the western states and sit and have a chat with them …” 

In the meantime, cities like New Orleans and Miami are looking toward the Federal Emergency Management Agency to recognize extreme heat as an emergency that triggers federal support.

“We really need a reevaluation of FEMA policies from an extreme heat standpoint,” Gilbert said. “To really look at … the cost analysis on human lives and how they could not just fund after the fact … how do we fund resilience?” 

These are some of the challenges NOHSEP hopes to discuss in its after-action meeting next month as leaders assess how to manage an expanding list of emergencies. 

“We’ve dealt with four different hazards I never thought I’d have to deal with in the last year,” said Anna Nguyen, director of the NOLA Ready team. “Tornado, hard freeze, wildfire, extreme heat … I thought I just signed up for hurricanes but here we are.”

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Climate and multimedia journalist Lue Palmer is a native of Toronto, Canada, with roots in Jamaica. Before entering their career in journalism, Lue was a writer, documentarian and podcaster, covering race,...