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You’ve heard of hurricane season. Now Miami-Dade is introducing ‘heat season’

 The unveiling is part of CLEO Institute’s #FLClimateCrisis campaign to draw attention to the urgency to act on climate change.
Jose A. Iglesias
Miami Herald
The unveiling is part of CLEO Institute’s #FLClimateCrisis campaign to draw attention to the urgency to act on climate change.

Floridians know that for six months of the year they have to be on guard for hurricanes. There are official updates from federal agencies, tax holidays to purchase supplies for protection and a blitz of media activity.

Miami-Dade hopes that on May 1, 2022, extreme heat will get the same level of attention.

While speaking on a panel Tuesday at COP26, the major United Nations summit on climate change, Miami-Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava announced that the county will officially mark a “heat season’ next year.

It will run from May 1 to Oct. 31, and, just like for hurricane season, county shelters will be available to residents who can’t safely stay in their own homes. The county will hold press conferences and educate the public on how to stay safe and cool in the heat.

“This will be the season where we are on alert just as we are for hurricanes,” she said from Glasgow, Scotland, site of the summit. “We want to develop that same level of awareness and preparedness.”

Levine Cava said this is the first step toward educating residents about the dangers of extreme heat, which are multiplying as the climate grows warmer.

“I think people, on their first blush, just think it’s hot here, but they don’t realize the danger of heat and how it’s getting hotter at an alarming rate,” she said. “We have to break through some inertia from complacency to help people understand the seriousness. And we have to use this as an opportunity to continue to make the investment in infrastructure.”

If greenhouse gas emissions aren’t curbed, Miami-Dade could go from experiencing about 41 days a year where it feels like 100 degrees Fahrenheit outside to 134 days by mid-century, according to a study by the Union of Concerned Scientists.

That would dramatically increase what already are significant heat vulnerabilities in Miami-Dade and the rest of South Florida as well. Federally assisted housing and prisons aren’t required to have air conditioning, and the high price of cooling a home with an inefficient air-conditioning system makes cooling unaffordable for some elderly people on fixed incomes. Heat, studies have shown, also worsens many medical issues, from heart and lung issues to mental health.

But unlike other parts of the country that experienced bouts of record-breaking extreme heat this summer, the National Weather Service issued no such warnings for Miami-Dade. That’s because the threshold for a heat advisory is relative, and in South Florida, one isn’t triggered until the combination of temperature and humidity (or “feels like”) hits 108 degrees Fahrenheit for at least two hours.

“In Miami, it’s less of ‘it’s going to get 20 degrees hotter for two days.’ What we have is more a chronic exposure to heat. What we need to do is to work with people on ongoing cooling strategies at their homes, at their places of work,” said Jane Gilbert, the county’s (and world’s) first Chief Heat Officer.

Most of the shelters, also called cooling centers, are already open and available to the public during the day, like libraries, community centers and park facilities. The list of potential shelters hasn’t been named yet, so it’s unclear the exact overlap between these shelters and hurricane shelters, which are often public schools.

“Even though we’re dependent on the National Weather Service for those heat advisories to open the cooling centers, they’re already open,” she said.

However, a constant level of high heat without specifically defined heat waves can make the use of public shelters at night complicated. Questions of who can stay, when and for how long are still undecided, Gilbert said.

She’s leading a county climate and heat task force that kicks off later this month. The members are charged with developing guidelines around the use of shelters during heat waves as well as county-level policies for making sure outdoor workers, elderly people and even school kids playing outdoor sports are protected when temperatures rise.

Miami-Dade is possibly the first government in the world to call for an official heat season, although the United Arab Emirates has an annual three-month ban on outdoor work during the hottest part of the day.

The heat season announcement Tuesday was on a panel hosted by the Adrienne Arsht-Rockefeller Foundation Resilience Center, which funded Gilbert’s position for the first year and just announced it funded another chief heat officer in Freetown, Sierra Leone.

Kathy Baughman McLeod, vice president and director of the center, said the center focuses on extreme heat because it’s solvable, and it’s an issue without the built-in ownership and advocacy surrounding hurricanes and flood (FEMA) and wildfires (the U.S. Forest Service).

“They need leadership because the heat waves are killing so many people. Our mission is to build human capacity for resilience to climate change and these innovative first-ever measures are a great way to do that for something that’s killing thousands of people a year,” she said.

This story was produced in partnership with the Florida Climate Reporting Network, a multi-newsroom initiative formed to cover the impacts of climate change in the state.

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Alex Harris - Miami Herald