Wash. city's cooling plans debated as return of triple-digit heat expected

The heat wave earlier this summer led to 15 confirmed and five pending deaths due to heat


By Adam Shanks
The Spokesman-Review
        
SPOKANE, Wash. — It might not shatter records, but temperatures are expected to reach triple digits again in Spokane.

After weeks of scrutiny and public debate, the plans for providing cool, habitable space for people during the heat this week are largely the same as during the deadly heat wave a month ago.

The National Weather Service predicts the high temperature at Spokane International Airport to reach 96 degrees on Thursday, at least 100 on Friday and 102 on Saturday before dropping down to double digits on Sunday.

Mellena O'Brien, 4, plays in the Yesler TerraceSpray Park during a heat wave hitting the Pacific Northwest, Sunday, June 27, 2021, in Seattle.
Mellena O'Brien, 4, plays in the Yesler TerraceSpray Park during a heat wave hitting the Pacific Northwest, Sunday, June 27, 2021, in Seattle. (AP Photo/John Froschauer)

Those temperatures are not as alarming as the all-time record 109 degrees reached on June 29, the peak of a stretch of brutal heat in which 20 people in Spokane County died of suspected heat-related causes.

But the forecast this weekend could still pose a health threat.

Heat stroke occurs when the body reaches 103 or 104 degrees internally and the central nervous system begins to break down. Temperatures lower than those extremes can still pose a risk to people who are more vulnerable to heat-related illness.

Older adults and people with underlying health conditions are at more risk for heat-related illness, and keeping cool is vital to not becoming ill. People who do not have air conditioning are recommended to seek cooler spaces during extreme heat as well as keep windows open, with fans for ventilation unless the temperature reaches above 95 degrees.

Heat-related deaths have increased slowly in the past decade in Spokane County. From 2010 to 2013 there were no heat-related deaths, and from 2014 to 2020, 15 people died from heat-related illness, according to data from the Spokane County Medical Examiner.

The heat wave earlier this summer led to 15 confirmed and five pending deaths due to heat, making 2021 already the most deadly year for heat-related illness in a decade. The changing climate means temperatures will continue to rise and heat waves could become more likely in the future.

On Wednesday afternoon, the National Weather Service issued a heat advisory for nearly all of Eastern Washington and North Idaho, including Spokane, from Thursday through Saturday evening.

The city of Spokane's plan for the upcoming weather largely mirrors what it offered during the June heat wave.

The Looff Carrousel in Riverfront Park will provide the primary space for cooling, while branches of the Spokane Public Library are tapped to provide  relief for those without shelter or air conditioning.

The main tenets of the plan, which was built in the days leading up to the late-June extreme heat, have not changed despite criticism from members of the Spokane City Council in recent weeks.

The City Council adopted an emergency ordinance following the heatwave that forces the city to open shelters at a lower temperature threshold and work to create standing agreements with facilities like schools and churches to broaden the availability of cooling centers. The former demand has already been met, but the latter is a work in progress, according to city officials.

Under the new law, the city must open cooling centers any time the high temperature is forecast to be above 95 degrees for two consecutive days. The Carrousel has been operating since Sunday and is expected to remain open, from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m., until the weather breaks.

According to Mayor Nadine Woodward, "we have not seen an uptick" in usage of the cooling center since the first heatwave.

Prior to Sunday, the Carrousel has been used as a cooling center on three occasions in July since the initial heatwave. Since opening on Sunday, it has been used by 94, 100 and 51 people each day.

In the initial heatwave, the city said it had capacity to accommodate 1,000 people between the Carrousel, backup buildings at Riverfront Park and library branches. The Carrousel was never used by more than 33 people at once.

"The fact that it wasn't fully utilized at Riverfront Park doesn't mean that it wasn't needed, it just wasn't the right solution. It's not bad intent, it just was not the right solution," City Council President Breean Beggs said earlier this month.

Councilwoman Betsy Wilkerson isn't surprised the cooling centers haven't been highly used, as they haven't substantially changed since the first heat wave. Wilkerson was an early critic of the city's cooling center plans ahead of the heatwave last month.

"Even with this additional time to have done some more outreach and put some additional things in play, I haven't seen it," Wilkerson said.

She portrayed the room at the Carrousel building as an uncomfortable place to be, and said she was personally able to only last about 10 minutes inside. Wilkerson said she's still concerned about the access to water, cooling center availability for people who are wary of leaving their pets behind and transportation to get people to safer spaces.

The administration has appropriately responded to the new temperature threshold for opening cooling centers set in the new law, but has not demonstrated it is prepared to be "more inclusive to people who have challenges," Wilkerson said.

According to city spokesman Brian Coddington, the Carrousel has a shaded outdoor patio area open to people with pets, and water is available at the center. He pushed back on the idea it is uncomfortable.
"It's indoors, it's air-conditioned, there's seats for people, there's water, there's Powerade, there's indoor restroom facilities, there's Wi-Fi," Coddington said.

Transportation

While the facilities are the same, the city has bolstered its communication efforts, Coddington said.
In the initial heat wave, the city used its own newsletter, social media and traditional news outlets to disseminate information about its cooling centers. Code enforcement officers also distributed flyers to unsheltered people.

Now, Coddington said the city has extended its use of social media to include the NextDoor app, which allows it to target specific neighborhoods. The code enforcement flyer has been updated and formalized, and the city has communicated with shelter providers to help spread information to its guests.

"We're always expanding and working to improve how we get the word out to people," Coddington said.
Woodward has also called on people to check on their friends and neighbors during the heat.

Coddington said the city has reached out to potential partners since the first heat wave this summer.

"There's been ongoing conversations with, for example, the faith-based community about what the possibilities might be," Coddington said.

Throughout the weeks of public debate following the last heat wave, Woodward has repeatedly described the difficulty of finding appropriate places to use as emergency shelter. Even schools — one of the buildings often suggested — have summer programming that can conflict with use as a cooling center, she has said.

City leaders have met to discuss emergency shelter, including safe air shelter for periods of heavy wildfire smoke, over the past several weeks.

Spokane City Councilwoman Lori Kinnear is more satisfied with the city's progress. She particularly praised Sarah Nuss, the city's emergency management director, for listening to input in the wake of the last heat wave.

Kinnear has advocated for tweaks to the cooling centers, like desks between chairs to allow for people to use a laptop.

"They're open to suggestions and making corrections along the way. It's not going to happen all at once. It's going to take some adjustments," Kinnear said.

And while the city of Spokane has been mired in debate about cooling center plans, elsewhere in Spokane County it is not viewed as a central responsibility of local government to provide shelter.

Spokane Valley relied on a mix of churches, schools, nonprofits and library branches during the late June and early July heat wave.

"In my mind if we've got partners that are already going to be doing that, absolutely we should help and support those partners," Spokane Valley Mayor Ben Wick said.
     
(c)2021 The Spokesman-Review (Spokane, Wash.)

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