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Deadly heat waves are a threat, and a reality. Can Baltimore make residents more resilient to rising temperatures?

As Baltimore began a third straight summer day under an extreme heat advisory, Michael Sargent needed help. Though his sixth-floor apartment is technically air-conditioned, it wasn’t nearly cool enough to ease his fears that the heat might trigger his epilepsy.

In pajama pants, a T-shirt and bare feet, he drove his power wheelchair out of the Apostolic Towers high-rise apartment building in East Baltimore and around the block, to the stoop of a community center called The Door. A neighbor had told him it was handing out box fans, part of its role as a “resiliency hub” — one of a dozen such community centers helping equip Baltimore residents to endure extreme weather and other disasters.

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It was just a fan, but Sargent said it provided valuable relief, suggesting The Door’s focus on resiliency is working in a part of the city where the urban heat island effect is most pronounced. A landscape of pavement, dense housing and sparse tree cover can make East Baltimore feel 16 degrees hotter than greener parts of the city, one recent study showed. That disparity, expected to grow as climate change makes Baltimore’s summers more extreme, only exacerbates other struggles, including access to healthy food, health care, mass transit and jobs.

“It’s a big help,” said Sargent, a 48-year-old with multiple health conditions, including a traumatic brain injury. ”It’s not like I can just go to Walmart to get a fan.”

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Michael Sargent of East Baltimore carries a fan from The Door.
Michael Sargent of East Baltimore carries a fan from The Door. (Kim Hairston/The Baltimore Sun)

That same August afternoon, when it felt close to 110 degrees outside, another resource for the overheated went unused. The lobby was empty at the Oliver Senior Center, just over a mile away, one of half a dozen “cooling centers,” opened by the Baltimore City Health Department during extreme heat.

Both the resiliency hubs and the cooling centers are needed to help residents endure extreme heat now and in the future, said Kimberly Eshelman, director of public health preparation and response for the health department.

While Baltimore may not yet have experienced the sort of heat that killed hundreds of people in the Pacific Northwest this summer, the science suggests it is coming. Typical heat waves have already become more frequent and sustained here. An average of nearly 40 days per year hit the 90s in Baltimore from 2011 through 2020, almost twice as often as a century earlier, according to National Weather Service data. A recent study predicted that by 2080, Baltimore’s summers will resemble today’s in Mississippi.

Baltimore’s cooling centers have been a mainstay strategy, a guaranteed respite to prevent cases of heat exhaustion or heatstroke and shelter residents from the immediate threat. But more systemic, structural remedies are necessary to temper extreme heat’s strain, even now.

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That’s where community hubs like The Door come in, Eshelman and other city leaders said.

Alongside immediate responses to heat waves, public health advocates hope to help residents weather the extreme conditions brought on by global climate change by expanding tree cover and replacing blacktop with surfaces that reflect heat, rather than retain it. But neither is proving easy in practice. And given how dramatically heat is rising already, there may not be time for those strategies to pay off.

“It’s happening really quickly,” Democratic City Councilman Mark Conway said, “and sometimes we’re caught flat-footed.”

Extreme heat may be the deadliest of threats associated with climate change. In the United States, the death toll attributed to heat is nearly 140 people every year, on average, over the past three decades, making it twice as deadly as tornadoes, according to weather service statistics.

In Maryland, heat is linked to nearly 20 deaths in an average summer, and nearly 50 in 2005 and 2012. This summer, the state reported seven heat-related deaths through mid-August.

And those statistics are likely undercounted. Research published last year estimated that heat deaths total 12,000 annually across the country, and could rise by 100,000 or more a year if we don’t adapt.

Malcolm Wilson, a neighborhood forestry technician from Baltimore Tree Trust, waters Friday a red maple tree he planted two years ago along Montford Avenue in East Baltimore.
Malcolm Wilson, a neighborhood forestry technician from Baltimore Tree Trust, waters Friday a red maple tree he planted two years ago along Montford Avenue in East Baltimore. (Barbara Haddock Taylor)

For decades, cooling centers have been a prime strategy to prevent heat-related deaths, triggered by a heat wave that killed 700 Chicagoans in 1995. Research suggests the centers have saved lives, though it’s impossible to quantify, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But studies also say their impact might be limited by a lack of transportation or awareness among those who need them most.

In Baltimore, as in many surrounding counties, the centers open when high temperatures and humidity are forecast to make it feel like the triple digits. This summer, Baltimore designated six cooling centers for when the city health commissioner declares a Code Red extreme heat emergency, providing an air-conditioned place to sit and drink bottled water.

Though they often go underused, with anywhere from a handful to a few dozen visitors a day, Eshelman said, they are important as a potential intervention for people in dire need of an escape from the heat. When the body is overheated, organs can fail because too much blood rushes to the skin, or body temperature can rise so high that it compromises brain function.

“Just a little bit of time in A/C helps bring relief for your body to withstand heat waves,” Eshelman said.

Baltimore also has launched the resiliency hubs in recent years as a different, longer-term strategy, supported by foundation grants and fundraising that have totaled $860,000. Lisa McNeilly, the city’s director of sustainability, said they are about “making people less reliant on something that’s somewhere else.”

At The Door, that takes many forms. Twice a week, the center gives out hundreds of boxes of produce to anyone in need. The Door has snowblowers for winter storms, and a generator for neighbors to plug in cellphones or oxygen tanks during power outages.

To combat the heat, The Door does more than fan giveaways. Tehma Smith Wilson, the organization’s chief operating officer, said strategies include reminding people to cover up rowhouse skylights in the summer, to use blackout curtains and to close both of the doors that create a vestibule at the entry of many East Baltimore homes.

Left, Willia Mae Rogers holds a fan while, right, Tehma Smith Wilson carries a box of produce to Rogers' cart. Wilson is COO of The Door, a city-designated "resiliency hub."
Left, Willia Mae Rogers holds a fan while, right, Tehma Smith Wilson carries a box of produce to Rogers' cart. Wilson is COO of The Door, a city-designated "resiliency hub." (Kim Hairston/The Baltimore Sun)

Smith Wilson, who grew up in East Baltimore and came back in 2019 to join The Door, said the neighborhood’s response has been strong, once people realize what’s being offered.

“A lot of people just stay inside and they try to bear it,” she said. “We just give them some tips to help them cope with it and deal with it a little better.”

That’s the goal: to prevent heat deaths for years to come, Eshelman said. While it’s important to make sure there are resources to help people in the midst of an emergency, she said, “that alone isn’t going to be what carries us through.”

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Other long-term strategies have a similar long-term payoff, but can be even harder to tackle quickly.

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Tree cover can mean a drastic difference in temperature, like between the city’s coolest spot, leafy Leakin Park, and its hottest, the neighborhoods that line Orleans Street in East Baltimore. And that’s in addition to measured reductions in crime and increases in water and air quality, said Charles Murphy, greening coordinator for TreeBaltimore, a city forestry program. Such benefits are driving a goal to increase the city’s tree canopy from 28% as of 2015 to 40% by 2030.

But progress toward that goal takes intensive work with property owners and neighbors who don’t always see the benefits, but remember when roots broke a water line or a branch fell on a car, he said. Also, the trees have to survive and grow for them to provide the desired benefits.

“A lot of funders get very excited when we can come back and say we’ve successfully planted 3,000, 4,000 trees a year,” said Bryant Smith, executive director of the Baltimore Tree Trust, a nonprofit that works with the city to plant and sustain trees. “A lot of folks aren’t putting enough support into maintaining the trees.”

Conway, the city councilman who preceded Smith as the trust’s leader, said hurdles can be most common in the hot neighborhoods where trees are fewest and pavement is most plentiful.

“You can’t just drop trees on the community and expect people to adopt those trees,” he said.

So, along with continuing to push for more tree cover, Conway is on the steering committee for the Smart Surfaces Coalition, an organization of business and environmental groups advocating for a movement away from the asphalt and roof tar that contribute to urban heat islands.

A report the coalition released this summer suggests that widespread efforts to replace blacktop with lighter surfaces, vegetation and porous materials in Baltimore could reduce temperatures by nearly 5 degrees in the hottest spots.

In theory, that could be accomplished through economic incentives, building codes or other policies, some of which have been adopted in Sun Belt cities like Phoenix. But there are no systematic “smart surface” efforts in Baltimore, something Conway and others hope to change.

Given the challenges of combating the heat, Doris Minor-Terrell is among those asking: Should air conditioning be considered an essential service?

State law bars utilities from shutting off heat in the winter. As she visited The Door to pick up produce boxes for her neighbors in nearby Broadway East in August, Minor-Terrell wondered if landlords should be required to provide some sort of cooling. It’s a controversial question, but one that more residents, housing activists and policymakers are beginning to consider.

“The heat indexes are changing,” she said. “We need to start looking at changing the paradigm here.”

Climate Change: Ready or Not is an occasional series examining Maryland’s readiness and adaptations to climate change by Baltimore Sun reporter Scott Dance, funded in part by the Abrams Nieman Fellowship for Local Investigative Journalism at Harvard University.

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