As Los Angeles struggled under a brutal heatwave, many streets were quiet as residents followed the official warnings to shelter inside their air conditioned homes. Public libraries transformed into cooling centers, and mutual aid groups prepared frozen water bottles to offer relief to unhoused residents. Food vendors were still on the streets, despite describing heat that can reach 115F (46C) inside a sweltering truck.
Heading into a holiday weekend, southern California is grappling with its hottest weather of the year, with no relief in sight. Even in a city known for its heat, the triple digit temperatures in some towns around Los Angeles are breaking records, and advocates worry that the extremes will prove deadly for workers and others forced to be outside during the hottest hours of the day.
Israel Contreras, 45, pushed an ice-cream cart along a mostly-empty sidewalk in Filipinotown, pausing in the shade of a tree. “It’s too hot,” he said. Sweat soaked through his shirt, but despite the lack of people outside, business wasn’t too bad, he said. There were children waiting inside their houses, and when they heard him, they would come out for the cold relief.
California’s extreme heat has raised concerns on a number of fronts: as firefighters battling blazes succumbed to heatstroke, as officials worried that the state’s electric grid could be overwhelmed, and as advocates warned that those without shelter or means would be the hardest hit.
Even with emergency measures put in place by Governor Gavin Newsom, including additional generators to produce more energy, the heatwave was expected to strain California’s electrical grid to the breaking point. In an attempt to stave off power outages, officials asked residents to try to reduce their energy use and avoid using major appliances during peak hours in the early evening when people usually return home and switch on their air conditioners.
Soaring temperatures have alarmed parents and school officials who spoke out about public schools without enough greenery or shade for children to safely play outside. Playground asphalt can reach 145F in extreme heatwaves, the Los Angeles Times reported. In San Diego, public high school students described the difficulty of concentrating in classrooms without functioning air conditioners, the Union-Tribune reported.
Workers who have to be outside in the heat, and the tens of thousands of people in Los Angeles who have no homes, are at particular risk of heat-related illness and death, advocates warned.
“Many unhoused people are going to pass away, being out here, and not having appropriate cold water, not having the appropriate shade,” said Theo Henderson, who hosts a podcast called We the Unhoused. Henderson urged residents who have housing to freeze water bottles and distribute them to their unhoused neighbors throughout the weekend.
Although Los Angeles has opened up more than 150 public cooling centers in response to the heat emergency, Henderson said, the number of centers is simply “not sufficient” for a region where more than 60,000 are estimated to be unhoused.
As many as 3,900 deaths across California in the previous decade were likely caused by excessive heat, a 2021 analysis by the Los Angeles Times found, with the state’s official statistics for heat deaths dramatically undercounting the toll, which disproportionately affects people who are poor, sick, elderly or very young. Black California residents were more likely than any other racial group to die of the heat, the analysis found.
In historic Filipinotown on Friday, mutual aid groups had advertised that they would be handing out hundreds of gallons of cold water to anyone who wanted to distribute it to their unhoused neighbors. Phillip Kim helped other young activists load bottles of water into the back of a car, where they would take them to people living in the street in Little Tokyo, he said.
“We’re not going to means test,” Albert Corado, another local activist, quipped. Anyone who wanted water could take it, no questions asked.
On Tuesday, garment workers and some of California’s Democratic members of Congress held a news conference demanding more federal protections against extreme heat for workers, such as delivery drivers and farm workers.
The Los Angeles county library system said it would open two dozen emergency cooling center locations across the city on Sunday and Monday, which “will be staffed by library workers who have agreed to work over the holiday weekend”, library spokesperson Jessica Lee said on Friday. But advocates like Henderson worry even those efforts won’t be enough, and urged the city to do more to let its most vulnerable residents know where they can find refuge.
California has taken a more proactive approach than most to address the climate crisis but many say the extreme heatwave highlights how much more aggressive action is needed.
Jane Fonda, the Hollywood actor who has been arrested multiple times at climate protests in Washington, noted that California legislators rejected a bill on Wednesday that would have set a more ambitious goal of a 55% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, compared to the current target of a 40% reduction.
On Thursday morning, Fonda held a news conference in the scorching, nearly-deserted streets outside Los Angeles’ city hall to highlight her new climate change-focused political action committee, which is supporting a slate of climate-focused candidates at the city level in Los Angeles.
“We need to talk about mitigation and long term solutions at the same time,” Fonda said. “We are living through the effects of climate change.”
September 3, 2022 at 10:57AM Lois Beckett in Los Angeles