As summer releases its swan song sweat days, like many others in the northern hemisphere, I am already nostalgic and slightly panicked. Summer, where did you go? However, this odd transition period also allows for some reflection on what the “silly season” brought us. My head has literally cooled down, and I find myself beginning to frame this summer’s memories and project into the cooler months. Everyone feels the dizzying effects of the heat in NYC to some extent, but every year, for hundreds across the city’s boroughs, the heat can mean a very different thing to a good time that closes with a crispy fall morning – it can be harmful, even fatal.
I work at a bar in Bushwick, Brooklyn. As the summer wore on, about three or four of the same men kept coming back to hang out outside the front of the bar who wore dirty clothes and talked to themselves, visibly in altered states of mind. One of them, Willy, would come in to ask for money or rant, and once asked me for water on a particularly humid day. I felt conflicted - do I hand a glass to this man who once fell into the bar after smashing a bottle over his own collarbone? He really looked in need of hydration so I resolved to pour him a pint, but he was already gone, arguing with his demons on the street. There is a homeless shelter for men a few blocks down Knickerbocker Avenue.
While the thread that ties extreme heat to adverse changes in mental health is age old, complications that arise from combinations of existing poverty, illness, and medication are ever difficult to resolve. The City of New York reported only one official death due to heat stroke (aka hyperthermia) this summer, during the July heat wave, but this excludes the countless fatalities that occurred due to the heat. For instance, people with pre-existing conditions that went into relapse and died during the heat wave, or harder to ascertain, murders due in part to heat activated aggression. The health department estimate for deaths directly or indirectly linked to heat every year hikes to 250, 300 at most. According the Environmental Protection Agency, heat waves kill more Americans each year on average than all other natural disasters combined.
The group that is by far the hardest hit each year is senior citizens. This is due to three major factors: poor health status (hypertension, disability, depression etc), social isolation, and lack of AC in the home. Needless to say, seniors at low-income levels fare the worst. New York State agencies are doing what they can to prevent unwanted outcomes of the heat. The HEAP Program (Home Energy Assistance Program) provides benefits for heat-related equipment problems and emergencies, but applications open in January and close in the middle of March – an appropriate time for heating, but a hard time to foresee the extreme temperatures of the coming summer.
Cooling centers occupy as many as 500 spaces in New York when a heat wave descends, yet studies are showing that they are going unused, for the most part. Eric Klinenberg, a sociologist at New York University who wrote "Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago" said “People tend not to go to places that are outside of their ordinary circles during crises…People who are socially isolated or physically isolated, older people and sick people who live alone are especially vulnerable during heat waves. They’re the ones who get very sick without recognizing it themselves and without anyone else noticing.”
The loopy tension and danger of heat is represented through literature and films throughout history. The most immediate images that come to mind for New York are from Spike Lee's "Do the Right Thing" where the heat rising off the Brooklyn sidewalk is emblematic of the intense racial tensions of the community; in Albert Camus iconic novel "The Stranger", the central murder takes place on a bright, hot day, while the heat wave appears to assault all the senses of the murderer; Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet sees Mercutio slain at the hands of a proud Tybalt on a summer's day. Summer is the season of horror in Korea, when all the new horror films premiere and "gwishin" - the souls of the dead trapped on earth – are said to roam the countryside. This state of intensity is surely a useful dramatic device, but there is a troubling truth in these fictions. What makes curbing this oppressive energy difficult, in a practical sense, is the psychology of “staying put” which Klinenberg describes.
While the government and non-profits work to make contact with at-risk populations during heat waves, making phone calls, house calls, and providing limited free conditioners and installation, the problem will only grow, not only in New York City but in many cities around the world with global warming and economic collapse. What else can be done? Outreach has its limits in the heat. The NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene site is has quite a lot of information on resources and tips, but once again, those without access to a computer remain among the most challenged when it comes to a weather crisis. Perhaps one solution might be to advertise HEAP, cooling center locations, and other programs more consistently through the year?
Willy on Knickerbocker Avenue knows nothing more than his stretch of the block and the shelter and lacks the mental stability to care for him self in the instance of a heat wave. How does he access resources? We fight the uphill battle of pulling together, cooperating, and coming to the aid of others, while the heat lulls even healthy minds into a static bubble.
Sources: Official Heat Stroke Deaths in NYC Only a Glimpse of True Toll of Summer (WNYC) Climate Change Adaptation:Addressing Heat-Related Morbidity and Mortality among Seniors in New York City (EPA) Heat Related Letter (New York State Office of Mental Health) Why Cooling Centers Go Empty (WNYC)