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Los Angeles Heat Wave: The City’s Abject Failure During a Pandemic

During the worst heat wave in LA history, just six cooling centers were open. KNOCK.LA went inside to see what they were like.

A Los Angeles cooling center sitting right next to an LAPD “Stop In Center” makes for an unwelcoming environment. (Credit: Kevin Varzandeh)

As a record shattering heat wave left Los Angeles suffering over Labor Day weekend, city officials opened just six cooling centers where Angelenos could seek shelter from heat-related illness or death. The cooling centers serve a population of 4 million people, including over 36,000 unhoused residents, in a city where about one in three households do not have air conditioning. Officials also failed to provide adequate notice or information about cooling centers to its most vulnerable residents.

The city’s six cooling centers, which are operated by the Department of Recreation and Parks, were open from 12–8 PM in South Central, MacArthur Park, Canoga Park, Arleta, Lake View Terrace, and Harbor Gateway. No cooling centers were opened by either the city or the county anywhere in Downtown, Central, or West Los Angeles.

LA County’s map of cooling center shows massive gaps in availability. Green icons are run by cities; blue are run by the county. (Source: https://ready.lacounty.gov/heat/)

Due to COVID-19 public health measures, occupancy was limited between 10 to 50 people, depending on the site. At the Canoga Park Senior Center, where temperatures broke triple digits several hours before the cooling center was opened, occupancy was limited to just 10 people. In nearby Woodland Hills, temperatures topped out at 121, the highest temperature ever recorded in Los Angeles County, a dubious distinction sure to be broken again in the coming years.

The Canoga Park Senior Center was the only cooling center serving the west San Fernando Valley during this heat wave. The next closest cooling center was located in Arleta, a 90-minute bus ride away, where as of this writing, the building capacity is still listed as “TBD.”

If a cooling center is open but no one knows about it, is it really open?

Los Angeles has a history of providing inadequate public services to its most vulnerable residents. Just last month, Mayor Garcetti tried to close one of the city’s few pandemic shelters and was forced to reverse course once the LA Times started asking questions.

It should come as little surprise that city officials treat heat emergencies, which carry life or death consequences for unhoused and elderly residents, with little urgency. This heat wave had been in the weather forecast as early as August 31. Heat emergencies in Los Angeles are not uncommon, yet LA Parks’ first tweet about cooling centers came less than 24 hours before they were scheduled to open.

The city could open cooling centers in areas with the greatest need, a topic which was examined in a new USC study that looked at household income, race, and the availability of air conditioning. Furthermore, neither the city nor the county used the wireless emergency alert system to inform people about cooling centers. This same alert system was used to implement illegal countywide curfews during the uprisings in June.

I spoke with Rose Watson, Director of Public Information at the Department of Recreation and Parks, about the cooling center outreach typically done before a heat wave kicks in. She said outreach is done with online posts, Twitter, press releases, and in coordination with council offices, but that outreach to unhoused residents is conducted “through LAHSA, not through the Department of Recreation and Parks.” I was unable to reach Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA) to comment for this story, as their voicemail box was full.

The city has also provided inconsistent messaging regarding the location and availability of cooling centers from one heat wave to the next. Four of the six cooling centers that were open during the previous heat wave were not open during Labor Day weekend.

#1, 2, 4, and 5 were not open during Labor Day weekend.

This raises the possibility of visitors arriving at a cooling center and finding it closed. But Watson did note that many cooling centers have frequent visitors, and facility staff would contact them if a cooling center was not scheduled to be open. Prior to COVID-19, “all of our recreation facilities would operate as cooling centers” during a heat wave, according to Watson. “This is new for us, having only a few open.”

Watson says “before they decide where the cooling centers are, there is a meeting with the emergency management team to discuss which centers are about to be open, and that’s between LA City and LA County.” It is unclear to what extent members of LA City Council are involved in these decisions. There are more landlords on the City Council than there were city cooling centers open during this historic heat emergency.

On Saturday, Councilmember Herb Wesson announced that the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Mall would open as a cooling center for seniors. The mall would be open from 10 AM – 6 PM on Sunday and Monday. His posts on Twitter and Facebook did not reach a wide audience, and as of this writing, the cooling center still does not appear on the county’s, the city’s, or Department of Recreation and Parks cooling center information pages. His Sunday afternoon tweet about the cooling center did go somewhat viral, and the word “senior” was removed from the message.

It is unclear whether this is for seniors only, what (if any) services are offered, whether storage space is available, what the capacity is, or what the rules are.

It is unclear if the cooling center was open only to seniors, or whether any services were provided at the mall. I called 311, said I was at the Crenshaw Expo Line station (one mile north of the mall), and asked where the nearest cooling center was. I was told to go to the South Los Angeles Activity Center, which is over 45 minutes away by transit. As of this writing, the councilmember’s office has not responded to KNOCK.LA’s request for comment.

What’s a cooling center like?

I walked up to one of the city’s cooling centers on Saturday, a few minutes before they opened. It was 104 degrees. A sign outside the door welcomed me in, but the words “pets allowed” and “games & activities” were blocked out, presumably a measure taken due to COVID-19. Inside, a worker in full PPE took my temperature, asked me about COVID-19 symptoms, gave me hand sanitizer, and directed me to another table down the hall, where I gave my name and phone number for contact tracing purposes. I introduced myself to the facility manager, who did not want to answer questions on the record.

If you have a companion pet, cooling centers are not for you. (Credit: Kevin Varzandeh)

I was struck by how incredibly boring the main seating area of the cooling center was. There were around 15 folding chairs spread more than six feet apart facing a large window in a multipurpose room. There were water bottles and a hand washing sink in the back. There were no tables, no WiFi, no television, no snacks, and certainly no games or activities. I was the only person there at the time, but I struggled to imagine what the room would look like if filled to capacity, with 15 people all sitting separately, unable to cross social distancing boundaries, play board games, watch TV, or do much of anything to pass the time.

I thought about those deciding between staying in their non air conditioned homes, running their air conditioning and getting electric bills they cannot afford, staying with their tents and belongings on the street, or getting themselves to an aggressively boring, far-off cooling center for eight hours during a pandemic, weighing the pros and cons of each option. These are the impossible decisions the city forces its most vulnerable residents to make during a time of multiple overlapping and unprecedented crises.

The interior of a cooling center. (Credit: Kevin Varzandeh)
Water bottles and a hand washing station. (Credit: Kevin Varzandeh)

The cooling center entrance was next to an LAPD “Stop In Center.” KNOCK.LA has reported extensively on the ways unhoused Angelenos spend their days avoiding getting their belongings stolen by police and sanitation crews, or otherwise harassed. While Watson told me that cooling centers have 60 gallon bins to store personal belongings, many unhoused residents would still not be inclined to carry all their possessions onto public transit, risking harassment along the way, only to arrive at a cooling center that may be at capacity next to a police facility in a different neighborhood.

Cooling centers run by LA County and by other cities were not much better.

I visited a total of seven cooling centers during the peak of the heat wave. In Burbank, an unhoused man sat in the grass outside the Buena Vista Library cooling center. He told me he couldn’t get inside because it was at capacity. (I then tried to get inside and they said a spot had just opened up, so I left and told the man to take it).

At Salazar Park in Boyle Heights, around two dozen, mostly elderly senior citizens watched soccer on TV and enjoyed air conditioning while sitting at socially distanced tables. In Glendale, where it was 116 degrees, visitors at Pacific Park were able to cool off in a gymnasium with WiFi or use the public pool with an appointment. LA County Public Health published guidelines allowing public pools to reopen on August 20. Pools in Glendale, Santa Monica, and Burbank have reopened following COVID-19 guidelines. It is unclear why public pools in Los Angeles have not reopened yet.

Average annual temperatures in Los Angeles County rose 2.3 degrees Celsius (4.1 F) between 1895 and 2018, already exceeding the 2 degree threshold climate scientists have long feared, a threshold at which all coral reefs and summertime arctic sea ice would disappear. Heat waves quietly kill more Americans each year than hurricanes, tornadoes, wildfires, or floods.

Last time a heat wave this severe occurred in Southern California, less than 15 years ago, up to 450 people died. According to a 2015 UCLA study, the number of days per year when temperatures in the Downtown area climb higher than 95 degrees could nearly triple by 2050. The city has not provided a cooling center in Downtown, Chinatown, or Echo Park for any of this summer’s heat waves, where tens of thousands of poor and unhoused residents live.